Agencies create Facebook pages for Deepwater and floods

FEMA and other federal agencies are establishing Facebook pages to help with disaster responses.

Federal agencies are creating Facebook fan pages to help disseminate disaster response information—and that includes pages for the Deepwater Horizon Response oil spill and for Tennessee flooding.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency created the flood page on May 6; to date it has 291 fans. The Unified Command—representing agencies and private entities that include the the Interior, Homeland Security and Defense departments, the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the British Petroleum Co. Ltd.— began operating the Deepwater Horizon page in late April. It has more than 16,000 fans.

The fan pages offer much information and provide novel views into how major disaster responses unfold. At the same time, it’s only fair to point out that there are both benefits and flaws in this new approach.

On the positive side, both pages offer photos, videos, maps, news stories, official statements, volunteer information, numerous links and comments, and give a sense of on-the-ground immediacy rarely seen in government operatios. Kudos to both page administrators for achieving that sense of being engaged in the events as they unfold.

On the other hand, it is hard to know whether the pages are fulfilling their goals. For one, they are not well-known and many people probably are not aware such pages exist. I searched “oil spill” and “Coast Guard” on Facebook and saw nothing about the Deepwater Facebook page. I searched “floods” and saw nothing about the FEMA flood page.

One of the commenters on the FEMA site summarized the problem well: “This is a good site. But I wonder how many of the people who need this information have access to it, either not (by) computer, or not aware.”

To FEMA’s credit, the site administrator responded almost immediately: “We hope people like you will help us spread the word.”

The FEMA flood page administrator also said the information featured on the Facebook site is available on other government sites. Perhaps the notion is that as long as the Facebook site is redundant in what it offers, it does not matter if it is not well publicized or well known.

That brings me to my chief concern, which is that since this disaster information is valuable to people, there ought to be accountability for it, and it ought to be publicized better, more clearly and with greater transparency.

If FEMA or another agency establishes a new Facebook web page, it would be great if it put an announcement on its main Web site, added links to and from the main site, and named an administrator for the Facebook site. Ideally, FEMA staff members ought to consider signing their comments on Facebook made on FEMA’s behalf: it is hard to hold anyone accountable for statements made on FEMA’s behalf if there are no names attached.

The new social media sites have a lot of color and immediacy to offer, but there is a bit of a sense of being left hanging, not knowing if you have received accurate and complete information. I’m not the only one feeling a confused by the proliferation of federal information sources. For example, a Web 2.0 blogger on May 10 praised the Deepwater Horizon Response Facebook page, but identified it as being operated by EPA instead of the Unified Command. These kinds of apparent misunderstandings will only continue to increase unless the information provided is clear, accurate and there is accountability for it.

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