Emergence of Citizen Resilience in Downtown Back Bay

On March 13, 2012, around 7pm, Back Bay downtown in Boston suffered a sudden power outage. Shoppers on the Newbury Street had to pay with cash because credit cards were no longer working. The subway system was terminated and traffic lights were off. Police force was immediately dispatched to handle traffic control. More than 20,000 residents were affected by the outage, which continued approximately for at least the next 2 days.

Government officials were concerned about the possibilities for violence such as riots and looting. Yet, as this case showed us, citizen resilience emerged. At the press conference held the day after the blackout, Edward F. Davis, Boston Police Commissioner, stated “It’s a real testament to the residents that it didn’t happen. We are very happy with the way things have gone so far. . . . Even the driving has been respectful.’’ [1] Similarly, Mayer Thomas M. Menino, at the same press conference applauded residents for coping well with the power outage. No violence related to the power outage was reported.

Back Bay downtown is a popular neighborhood where local residents, business residents and visitors spend time together. It is a very diverse and complex neighborhood. According to a theory of ‘emergent norm’[2] in crowd dynamics literature, citizen’s collective behavior is decided by emergent norms. Collective behavior can be observed in situations that are unusual such that “redefining the situation, making sense of confusion, is a central activity” (Turner, and Killan, 1987, p. 26). Then, before a crowd takes an action there is an extended period of observing others and scanning environment and then reflecting them on their own thoughts, which become a basis of its own action. In Back Bay’s case, a norm of resilience emerged from the dynamics of crowd in one of the busiest area in Boston. A social order of resiliency emerged.

How did citizen resilience emerge in environments that are composed of diverse groups such as local residents, tourists, and business residents?  How can we understand citizen resiliency in a big city, drawing on crowd dynamics perspective?

[2] Turner, R. and Killian, L. (1987). Collective Behavior (3rd Edition). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Sherif, M. (1936) The Psychology of Social Norms. New York: Harper.


Community Resilience – One Year since the North Minneapolis Tornado

On May 22, 2011, North Minneapolis was hit by tornados, which damaged about 3,700 buildings and killed two people, and left the community devastated. The Northside Community Response Team (NCRT), created by local organizations for coordinated disaster recovery effort, was immediately activated to provide resources, partnerships, and other support for residents in the area. Partnering with Urban Homeworks, they focused on housing rebuilding efforts. Since the disaster, out of the 206 worst-hit structures, 149 have been repaired or are under repair, 48 have been demolished, and 9 still remain damaged. Although progress on rebuilding efforts has been significant, the community is still recovering from the psychological scar. The residents still have a difficult time coming to terms with fear and anxiety associated with Tornado warning. Moreover, the newly built houses are different from the old houses where residents have their fond memories.

On May 21 2012, the North Minneapolis community and the city officials celebrated their one year anniversary commemorating the community’s resilience. A new tree was planted to honor a hero who was killed while he was saving others during the disaster and balloons that symbolize hope, healing, and resilience, were released.[1]  In an art class, students at the Lucy Craft Laney Elementary School drew their recollections  on the disaster. They drew big dark spirals of the tornado and damaged houses, but also pictures of rebuilding, which signifies the community’s future potential.[2]

The practice of remembrance signifies an individual’s sense of belonging to a community[3], which ultimately increases solidarity of the community to stay strong and to keep moving forward. Maintaining community resilience is challenging especially when recovery is still in-progress.

What are other practices of healing that foster community resilience?

[3] Cohen, S.  and Hoberman, H.M. (1983). “Positive Events and Social Support as Buffers of Life Change Stress,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 13, 99-125.

Emergent Tactics during Disaster Response and Recovery

Contingency plans seldom work out as conceived during a disaster. The simple reason for this is that they are designed during times of normalcy and rarely can account for significant emergent phenomenon during a disaster. As such, we find emergent tactics from responders, citizens, government agencies during response and recovery efforts. These practices are vital for effective disaster recovery processes and often revolve around preferred communication mediums, social gatherings, and volunteer exchanges. Below I outline three important emergent practices that are often observed during disaster recovery efforts.

  1. Volunteer Coordination: During and after disaster recovery, one of the common and important emergent practices is volunteer coordination. The coordination of volunteers are carried out in various levels. It sometimes start from one post on a Facebook page or a shout on Twitter.Communities need a coordinator who organizes information on virtual spaces and also coordinate the volunteers’ desire and the hosts’ needs. Today, much of the coordination is mobilized virtually through online social platforms.
  2. Partnership: During and after disaster recovery, disaster relief organizations such as the American Red Cross, United Way and  government agencies (e.g. FEMA), partners with local communities to offer help and support for the areas hit by disasters. While there is some cooperation among these agencies, we also see a heavy dose of competition among agencies during relief efforts. This is a natural outcome of how these agencies are structured and funded. Emergent competition is understudied in the literature and needs to be looked at.
  3. Community Memory: Communities impacted by disasters practice remembrance of their shared experiences through ceremonies, events, and gatherings. This can occur through sharing of photos on a Facebook page to build collective memory of shared experiences and to sustain hope. More formally, this can be a city-wide event for remembrance where community leaders ensure rebuilding efforts are in progress. These ritualistic practices act as a community’s coping mechanism. While some of these ritualistic practices are standard, some do emerge due to the specifics of a disaster.

All of these emergent practices are important for effective disaster recovery and also essential for strong community development. What are some of the other issues that help or hurt the emergence of community resiliency?

Social Media Training for Disaster Preparation

Even though social media tools have the potential to make positive contributions to disaster relief and recovery efforts, training is seldom provided to citizens on how to use these technologies in times of disasters. While the younger-generation may not need such training, the non-digital natives and the elderly (who are often less nimble during times of crises) need training on how to use these tools. Below are three types of training that citizens might desire:

  1. Social media basics: Basic social media training is necessary; given the fact all citizens haven’t adopted social media tools yet. Also, these seminars can be offered as a webinar format to encourage busy citizens to attend the training sessions online and follow up the sessions by listening to the recorded session.
  2. Advanced social media use: While most citizens are familiar with social media tools such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, most are not familiar with advanced social media tools, such as GIS and crowdmapping, which are especially useful for disaster recovery efforts. Although these technologies are developed for non-tech savvy use and typically do not require advanced technical skills, they require citizens to have some knowledge, if they want to fully utilize the functionalities. These technologies are typically created by ‘technology volunteer groups’ who help during disaster recovery efforts. Communities may want to partner up with these volunteer groups/organizations to learn technical skills.
  3. Emergency response training: Social media platforms afford us the opportunity to train citizens in emergency response tactics and practices. Citizens who are not hurt during a disaster can step up to help and leverage technology to speed up response efforts.

What kind of training is necessary or desirable for citizens to be effective disaster recovery volunteers? How should these training be provided and how can they reach out citizens who really need social media training?

Developing Resilient Communities by Leveraging Social Media

Today, social media is considered an essential technology for disaster recovery.  It affords citizens the capability to exchange important real-time disaster-related information, which can help during response and recovery efforts. Social media is also an effective tool to develop communities. Below are three ways that social media was leveraged during disasters:

1.  Increase Citizen Awareness for Disaster preparedness

The Kansas City Metropolitan Emergency Managers Committee (MEMC) has created a series of seven YouTube videos that uses two characters, Disaster and Preparedness, to provide emergency preparedness information to its citizens. The first of 7 videos has more than 8,000 viewers. Using these YouTube videos to disseminate information to citizens is effective because they can be easily shared via social media sites such as blogs and other social networking sites. Increase citizens’ awareness of disaster preparation is an important step towards building community resilience.

2.  Design Co-Participatory Disaster Preparedness

Most cities (towns, states, and even countries) maintain websites that let citizens interact and learn basic emergency preparation skills. Rather than simply communicating information, social media allows a city to take a more participatory approach for disaster preparedness. In August 2011, the Arizona Emergency Information Network (AzEIN) took a co-participatory approach for its family Emergency Kit Cook-off, which was a new National Preparedness Month activity, in collaboration with the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts by asking citizens to vote for potential ingredients. The participatory approach not only increased citizens’ awareness of emergency preparation, but also developed a sense of community by providing citizens an opportunity to influence disaster preparedness.

3.   Design Co-Participatory Learning

Preserving community memory during disasters is important not only for learning from the incident, but also to enable reflection and storytelling.  Social media sites can help local communities record and document the process of recovery and lessons learned. For example, Joplin’s lessons learned document such as The Use of Social Media for Disaster Recovery by Joplin Tornado Info is an important artifact that serves as a memorial artifact.

Engaging citizens in a disaster management process can be fostered by social media. What do you think about social media use for community building before, during, and after disasters? How can we harness a participatory approach for disaster management?

Technology Innovation from Disaster Recovery

A resilient community is the one that sees obstacles as opportunities for transformation. For the resilient community, a disaster can be a catalyst for technological innovation to solve problems that might emerge during disaster recovery efforts.

Need and aid matching platform: On June 1st, 2011, an EF3 tornado hit Western Massachusetts, including Caitria and Morgan O’Neill’s house. Both of them had no experience with natural disasters. As they began to re-build the town, they discovered that there were unmet needs in terms of matching what local citizen needs and what public contribute. During the first week, financial or volunteer contributions poured in,  but local communities were too busy to utilize this aid. Local volunteers were untrained for disaster response and staff sent from disaster relief organizations did not have sufficient knowledge about local communities and conditions. As a result, Caitria and Morgan came up with a solution, a web platform (https://recovers.org/) that include searchable databases, social media aggregation and mobile tools that allow volunteer organizers to actively match needs with aid. The web platform can be leveraged across other local cities/towns.

Volunteer and emergency information app: The Ready Qld is a smartphone application that helps mobilize and coordinate volunteers before, during, and after disasters. The Ready Qld application was developed by Volunteering Queensland with assistance from the University of Queensland after the Queensland’s massive floods destroyed buildings and local areas a massive number of volunteers rant to help the city clean the area. Now citizens can register themselves through their smartphone. The smartphone application also provides disaster preparation information resources.[1]

Co-producing stories of resilience: Although this project didn’t emerge from disaster recovery efforts, it is a good example of a community bonding. “Lemonade: Detroit” is a video project that captures a city of Detroit’s resilience. Using a storytelling format, the firm captures various stories of citizens’ resilience to build the city’s future. These are stories of people who are trying to build a better future for their city. The video took a crowdfunding approach by letting individuals become co-producers by purchasing frames or parts of frames. So far, 2,941 producers have funded 86,595 frames.

Do you know of other innovations that have emerged around disasters?

Developing Cross-Community Resilient Networks

Every year, disasters such as tornados, snowstorms, earthquakes, and floods, hit our local cities/towns. One such community, the city of Joplin, used their disaster as an opportunity to build cross-community resilient networks and turned to other fellow local communities for assistance. A deadly tornado hit the city of Joplin on May 22, 2011, killed 161 people and damaged the area by destroying buildings and homes. The Joplin communities fought back and, a year later, the recoveries were evident, but there was a still long road ahead to reach an ultimate recovery.

In March, 2012, a group of community leaders – bank executives, hospital administrators and church workers – from Joplin, Mo visited New Orleans to learn lessons from Hurricane Katrina survivors– what worked and what didn’t work – for their disaster recovery processes.[1] The trip was sponsored by Rebuild Joplin, a Not-for-Profit organization that aims Joplin’s residential recovery, which partnered with the St. Bernard Project that helped New Orleans to rebuild hundreds of homes. The goal was to share lessons learned. The partnership aimed to overcome geographic and cultural barriers to move rebuilding efforts forward through cross-community knowledge sharing.

Joplin also partnered with another town, Greensburg, KS, which successfully re-built the city after a tornado hit in 2007. In fall 2011, Joplin founded Greentown Joplin, partnering with Greensburg Greentown, to re-build the city as a sustainable city. Some of initial initiatives include

■  Provide information and consulting for those rebuilding

■  Launch a design contest for post-disaster model affordable housing

■  Set up the Resident Greenius (“Green Genius”) Skills Bank

■  Establish relationships with some of the largest rebuilding projects in Joplin[2]

The Joplin’s effort to build cross-community knowledge sharing networks with both Greensburg and New Orleans increases community resiliency. What do you think about Joplin’s initiatives? How can we foster such cross-community knowledge sharing networks? What are the challenges? How can these networks be designed?

Title: From Greensburg to Joplin

Tribes During and After Disasters

Tribes are “a group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader and an idea” [1]. Tribes emerge if there is a shared interest among individuals and a means to connect each other. We often see that tribes emerge during and after the disaster. These tribes are around emergent leaders who take an action immediately to help others. There were at least three types of tribes that emerged disaster recovery efforts in Alabama after the tornados of April, 2011.[2]

  1. Mnemonic tribe: A tribe that preserves community memory of the disaster. The Facebook page “In Memory of 4/27/2011 Tornado Victims” has a collection of more than 200 photographs submitted by those who lost their friends and families by the tornados in Alabama and in other states. The creator of the page, Angela Brown, the founder of the page, developed the page, “… so that people could see the faces and hear stories of those lost and not just see the numbers.”[3]
  2. Information brokering tribe: A tribe that exchanges real-time information about the disaster such as donation, weather updates, supplies, and volunteering opportunities. Right after the disaster, Tonia Davis-Evans created a Facebook page, “Pleasant Grove, Al Tornado Updates,” to reach out people seekin disaster-related information. On the page, some asked the status of the damage in a particular area and got answered. A church posted donation requests and received overwhelming responses. The page very popular, surpassing 2,000 followers within the first day.
  3. Partnering tribe: A tribe that connects and partners with other parties. ABC chief meteorologist James Spann’s twitter account, who had approximately 22,000 followers, became a hub for volunteering opportunities matching. He also successfully communicated the needs of victims by creating Twitter hashtags such as #AlNeeds to spread the needs of victims.

Have you run across other kinds of tribes that emerge during disasters? What makes for successful tribal coordination efforts? Do you have other cases where the prominence of tribes was significant during disaster response and recovery efforts?

Social Media Use for Disaster Recovery: Two Approaches

Using social media for disaster recovery has become commonplace during disaster relief efforts. Social media can be used as canvas (platform), a space for social gathering. However, employing social media tools for effective disaster recovery is still challenging. Two approaches may be considered when using social media tools:

  1. Team-oriented approach: Following the Joplin (MO) tornado hit on May 22, 2011, Five volunteers developed a virtual space for tornado victims, their families, volunteers, as well as local businesses. The information hub is called Joplin Tornado Info (joplintornado.info). The Joplin Tornado Facebook page has more than 40,000 followers. The Facebook page provides most updated and real-time information on Tornado activity. It integrates various technologies such as google products (e.g. documents, places, and voices), Wikis, Flicker, etc. The site was nominated for a 2011 Mashable Award in the Social Good Cause Campaign Category.
  2. Emergent community approach: An emergent community approach is led by an individual who acts to help disaster victims and connect people typically using social media.  ABC chief meteorologist James Spann’s twitter account, who had approximately 22,000 followers, became a hub for volunteering opportunities matching. He also successfully communicated the needs of victims by creating Twitter hashtags such as #AlNeeds to spread the needs of victims.

How have you seen social media technologies used during disasters? Are there other modes of implementation?

Citizen Resiliency – Technology, Local Knowledge, and Learning

Shneiderman (2010) stated that “technology-mediated social participation is generated when social networking tools (such as Facebook), blogs and microblogs (Twitter), user generated content sites (YouTube), discussion groups, problem reporting, recommendation systems, and other social media are applied” to local priorities including disaster response (p.6).”.  Hiltz (2011) believes that one of the “major challenges for crisis management is integrating information during disasters from citizens, using social media, with that of official responders, disseminating messages through channels such as television, radio, SMS, and Internet Web sites (p.18:5).”  Sutton (2008) stated that “opportunities and mechanisms for participation by members of the public are expanding the information arena for disasters.  Social media supports backchannel communications, allowing for wide-scale interactions between members of the public that has qualities of being collectively resourceful, self-policing and generative of information that cannot otherwise be easily obtained (p.7).” 

Tran (2009) finds that using local knowledge in disaster management “enables local communities to participate actively in the decision-making process. Local knowledge is a powerful resource (p.167)” and is a “key element in disaster risk reduction.  Integrating local knowledge into disaster risk management can improve the quality of disaster management plans by providing policy makers and practitioners with deeper insights into many different aspects of disaster vulnerabilities and the interrelated role of local peoples and their cultures (p.168 ).”  Awazu and Desouza (2004) state that the “traditional knowledge management can learn from the open-source revolution (p. 1019)”, and when looked at in the context of disaster management, leads one to conclude that integrating existing pre-disaster data with deploying the “planned serendipity” of community networks use of social media tools may help traditional responders to find new meaning in their data (Majchrzak 2011, p.131).   

Voss (2010) concluded that learning in an institutional setting for extreme emergencies or small town disasters rarely takes place.  Partly because the appearances of citizens, emergent groups, and non-governmental stakeholders response to disasters, may be perceived as a failure by government, public officials often do not take into account in community emergency planning and misunderstand both the reasons behind their emergence and the roles they play in disaster-related community problems (p.657).” Comfort (2002) stated that governmental performance in preventing and adequately responding to disasters could be better served if “an interactive learning process that, while guided by public organizations must involve responsible participation by private and non-profit organizations as well as an informal citizenry” and the entire community becomes engaged in the informed process of risk reduction and response. 

How do you think the combination of technology, local knowledge, and learning from local disasters can help us better prepare for future crises?