Crowdsourcing Disaster Response: Mobilizing Social Media for Urban Resilience

By Thérèse F. Tierney

As urban populations continue to expand worldwide, natural disasters are precipitating increased challenges to public health, welfare, and safety. Informal methods, such as crowdsourcing, can provide real-time data enabling quick responses during earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, or other natural disasters. The author discusses how crowdsourcing can offer insights and analyses to improve urban resilience in the face of threats.

“When Sandy hit New York City, it completely destroyed some neighborhoods just as it completely spared others. While Breezy Point was under water and on fire, for example, the Upper East Side could still watch Netflix. When news spread of the devastation – and in particular, when people saw images of the devastation – those New Yorkers who still had power and running water rallied, volunteering by the thousands to help.”   Huffington Post (11/19/2012)1

Thirteen-foot waves surged across Battery Park on October 29, 2012, while the Hudson River flooded its banks. As New York City firefighters climbed into rescue boats to navigate Lower Manhattan, brave (or merely incautious) citizen journalists ventured into waist-high water to document the damage. Instantly the Internet was awash with Hurricane Sandy’s devastation. Snapshots captured on mobile phones via Instagram, an image-sharing social network, served as graphic windows allowing glimpses of the destruction. “Instagram bonded users together in a participatory, networked public,” blogged urban theorist Kazy Varnelis from New York (11/4/2012).2 [Figure 1]




Demonstrating social media’s resilience during emergencies, Twitter feeds also assisted in coordinating help, shelter, and food for the distressed. Mobile food truck drivers scrambled into operation, micro-blogging their locations while distributing provisions to the cold and famished.3 As microbloggers uploaded geotagged information, hybrid alliances formed between online platforms and offline places. An interactive crisis map of Manhattan with links to Facebook, Twitter, text, or email connected those in trouble with local evacuation centers and emergency shelters with real-time updates from the Red Cross, FEMA, and other municipal agencies. Later, the crisis map served to document the extent of power outages, as well as the availability of grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, charging stations, warming centers, and senior services – all provided by neighborhood residents.4

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