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.