The ABC of crowdsourcing in a crisis

Miscommunication is as old as communication. The dark side of all interconnectivity is its power to transmit the salacious, the fictitious, the misguided – often virally, often uncontrollably.

From the very first email: “virus warning, tell all your friends” there’s been natural – if unfortunate – exploitation of the very human wish to help, collaborate and communicate.

When this happens on Twitter, one big difference is that the explosion of communication happens much more quickly. Real-time response can of course be highly desirable. If you’ve just lost your child in a crowded train station, for example.

Yesterday, this tweet sparked an avalanche of retweets, alerting hundreds (maybe even thousands?) that a 7 year old girl had been lost.

If you’re a parent, it’s probably happened to you. The most awful feeling. That paralysis, that fear: Where do I get help? Do I stay put? Do I run wildly around searching? In which direction? Who should I tell? Should I make a sudden, very un-British public demonstration of the situation?

There are no perfect answers – but clearly in this case the report was serious enough to have already got to SE1, and the tweeting began.

I was heading across the river towards Waterloo anyway that afternoon, and kept my eyes open for a child as described. Probably many others did, or gave it some thought. Crowdsourcing at its best – unorganised, viral, organic, with a unifying purpose, but nothing else by way of structure to get in the way… Remember #uksnow? 😉

As I walked, I thought about whether there was a ‘best practice’ to using social media like this – every instinct telling me that ‘central places to report’, a #lostchild hashtag convention, a systematic urban-grid-search-plan with real-time mapping (thanks to @adrianshort for that) probably all had as many drawbacks and impracticalities as they’d offer by way of benefit. Nice intellectual exercise though.

Eventually I asked one of the British Transport Police on the station if “the child was still lost” – and got the answer: “oh, the 7 year old, no she’s been found”. Which was enough to assure me that we were communicating about the same thing, and I had enough confidence to tweet this as an update, (which did get RT’d but probably with less gusto than the original alert). And I notified SE1 so that they could update their site (which they did in a slightly curious way).

So, digesting all this, I offer the following suggestion on ‘good’ – not ‘perfect’ – handling of incidents like this.

A: Authority. What authority are you drawing on for your information? “a friend of a friend says that this new virus threat is…” wasn’t good enough to spam all your friends, and it’s not good enough for a RT, imho. So, rule of thumb: if your source is more ‘official’ or evidently better connected on the ground than you are (yellow jackets, radios or established websites are pretty good indicators here), then this becomes your Authority; just make sure you reference it.

B: Broadcast. If you have confidence in your source, tell your networks. That’s what they’re there for.

C: Close the loops. Perhaps the most important bit, but guaranteed to be the one that gets missed the most. With your broadcasting comes a responsibility: either to follow up and update yourself, or to transmit an update that you hear of (based on a suitable Authority, of course) to your network in just the same way as you’d broadcast the alert. In some ways the closure is just as important as the alert – it builds credibility around the whole communication process.

With crowdsourcing, no one’s in charge. No one ‘owns’ an incident. All information has some inaccuracy, and risk. Fictitious children will be searched for, and sacks of postcards delivered to an address down the road from where a child recovered from cancer five years ago.

But think A, B, C next time you pass on something. Particularly if it’s as emotive and real as a lost little girl.


  1. As with all things SMART

    Specific – Where? Too often I see a “lost in the city centre” – which city?
    Measurable – like your authority, who reported this originally? Are they trustworthy?
    Attainable –  How will you know when it’s over? (ie the child has been found)
    Relevant – If you’re UK based & so are most of your follower, don’t RT a child missing in Poughkeepsie.
    Time Bound – When did the child go missing? “Yesterday” or “this afternoon” aren’t great – rewteets happen for several days. Put a date & timestamp on it.

    Basically, this is crap “Girl with yellow jumper missing in city center PLEASE RT” is a bit crap.
    “Missing! Birmingham City Centre 29/08 – yellow jumper. Contact   @$example PLEASE RT” is better.

    I often see RT for incidents which ended days – or even months – ago. Always check before you RT.

  2. There is a clear problem in this use of viral crowdsourcing: it’s difficult, if not impossible, to stop the spread once it’s started.

    It’s a concept very well exploited by viral marketing agencies, akin to a nuclear explosion.

    Why is it so successful when applied to marketing, and so frustrating when trying to stop mailbombing that children who recovered from cancer 5 years ago? One simple reason: humanity. At its worse. Why do people buy crap press? For the same reason. Why do people stop staring at a car accident? For the same reason.

    Te reason is: news of possible tragedies are meaty. They spread easily because they appeal to our fears in the best case, and to our voyeurism in the worst. It’s a mechanisms that comes from our survival instincts.

    So these kind of news will spread virally. “A children is lost” will always appeal to our survival mechanism. “Hurray, the children has been found” does not threaten anything. No RT. I’d like to research the actual stats of this…

  3. Timely thoughts, Paul.

    This video of the BlueLightCamp session on police and fire officers using Bambuser might be of interest in this context. Perhaps a quick live video clip from a police officer or other official source, which can then be disseminated via social media, could be a way of ensuring that accurate information gets out and is updated when it needs to be.

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