Tag Archives: cross

Behind the Scenes: The Digital Operations Center of the American Red Cross

The Digital Operations Center at the American Red Cross is an important and exciting development. I recently sat down with Wendy Harman to learn more about the initiative and to exchange some lessons learned in this new world of digital  humanitarians. One common challenge in emergency response is scaling. The American Red Cross cannot be everywhere at the same time—and that includes being on social media. More than 4,000 tweets reference the Red Cross on an average day, a figure that skyrockets during disasters. And when crises strike, so does Big Data. The Digital Operations Center is one response to this scaling challenge.

Sponsored by Dell, the Center uses customized software produced by Radian 6 to monitor and analyze social media in real-time. The Center itself sits three people who have access to six customized screens that relate relevant information drawn from various social media channels. The first screen below depicts some of key topical areas that the Red Cross monitors, e.g., references to the American Red Cross, Storms in 2012, and Delivery Services.

Circle sizes in the first screen depict the volume of references related to that topic area. The color coding (red, green and beige) relates to sentiment analysis (beige being neutral). The dashboard with the “speed dials” right underneath the first screen provides more details on the sentiment analysis.

Lets take a closer look at the circles from the first screen. The dots “orbiting” the central icon relate to the categories of key words that the Radian 6 platform parses. You can click on these orbiting dots to “drill down” and view the individual key words that make up that specific category. This circles screen gets updated in near real-time and draws on data from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and blogs. (Note that the distance between the orbiting dots and the center does not represent anything).

An operations center would of course not be complete without a map, so the Red Cross uses two screens to visualize different data on two heat maps. The one below depicts references made on social media platforms vis-a-vis storms that have occurred during the past 3 days.

The screen below the map highlights the bio’s of 50 individual twitter users who have made references to the storms. All this data gets generated from the “Engagement Console” pictured below. The purpose of this web-based tool, which looks a lot like Tweetdeck, is to enable the Red Cross to customize the specific types of information they’re looking form, and to respond accordingly.

Lets look at the Consul more closely. In the Workflow section on the left, users decide what types of tags they’re looking for and can also filter by priority level. They can also specify the type of sentiment they’re looking, e.g., negative feelings vis-a-vis a particular issue. In addition, they can take certain actions in response to each information item. For example, they can reply to a tweet, a Facebook status update, or a blog post; and they can do this directly from the engagement consul. Based on the license that the Red Cross users, up to 25 of their team members can access the Consul and collaborate in real-time when processing the various tweets and Facebook updates.

The Consul also allows users to create customized timelines, charts and wordl graphics to better understand trends changing over time in the social media space. To fully leverage this social media monitoring platform, Wendy and team are also launching a digital volunteers program. The goal is for these volunteers to eventually become the prime users of the Radian platform and to filter the bulk of relevant information in the social media space. This would considerably lighten the load for existing staff. In other words, the volunteer program would help the American Red Cross scale in the social media world we live in.

Wendy plans to set up a dedicated 2-hour training for individuals who want to volunteer online in support of the Digital Operations Center. These trainings will be carried out via Webex and will also be available to existing Red Cross staff.


As  argued in this previous blog post, the launch of this Digital Operations Center is further evidence that the humanitarian space is ready for innovation and that some technology companies are starting to think about how their solutions might be applied for humanitarian purposes. Indeed, it was Dell that first approached the Red Cross with an expressed interest in contributing to the organization’s efforts in disaster response. The initiative also demonstrates that combining automated natural language processing solutions with a digital volunteer net-work seems to be a winning strategy, at least for now.

After listening to Wendy describe the various tools she and her colleagues use as part of the Operations Center, I began to wonder whether these types of tools will eventually become free and easy enough for one person to be her very own operations center. I suppose only time will tell. Until then, I look forward to following the Center’s progress and hope it inspires other emergency response organizations to adopt similar solutions.

How to Crowdsource Crisis Response

I recently had the distinct pleasure of giving this year’s keynote address at the Global Communications Forum (#RCcom on Twitter) organized by the Interna-tional Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. The conversations that followed were thoroughly fruitful and enjoyable.

Like many other humanitarian organizations, the ICRC is thinking hard about how to manage the social media challenge. In 2010, this study carried out by the American Red Cross (ARC) found that the public increasingly expects humanitarian organizations to respond to pleas for help posted on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc. The question is, how in the world are humanitarian organizations supposed to handle this significant increase in “customer service” requests? Even during non-emergencies, ARC’s Facebook page receives a large number of comments on a daily basis many of which solicit replies. This figure escalates significantly during crises. So what to do?

The answer, in my opinion, requires some organizational change. Clearly, the dramatic rise in customer service requests posted on social media platforms cannot be managed through existing organizational structures and work flows. Moreover, the vast majority of posted requests don’t reflect life threatening situations. In other words, responses to many requests don’t require professional emergency responders. So humanitarian organizations should consider taking a two-pronged strategy to address the social media challenge. The first is to upgrade their “customer service systems” and the second is to connect these systems with local networks of citizen crisis responders.

How do large private sector companies deal with the social media challenge? Well, some obviously do better than others. (Incidentally, this question was a recurring topic of conversation at the Same Wavelength conference in London where I spoke after Geneva). This explains why I recommended that my ICRC colleagues consider various social media customer service models used in the private sector and identify examples of positive deviance.

The latest innovation in the customer service space was just launched at TechCrunch Disrupt this week. TalkTo “allows consumers to send text messages to any business and get quick responses to questions, feedback, and more.” As TechCrunch writes, “no one wants to wait on the phone, and email can be slow as well. SMS Messaging is a natural form of communication these days and the most efficient for simple questions. It makes sense to bring this communication to businesses.” If successful, I wonder whether TalkTo will add Twitter and Facebook to their service as other communication media.

Some companies leverage crowdsourcing, like Best Buy’s TwelpForce. Over time, Best Buy “found that with some good foundational guideposts and training tools, the crowd began to self-organize and govern itself.  Leaders in the space popped up as coaches, or mentors – and pretty soon they had a really good support network in place.”

On the humanitarian side, the American Red Cross has begun to leverage their trained volunteers to manage responses to the organization’s official Facebook page, for example. With some good foundational guideposts and training tools, they should be able to scale this solution. In some ways, one could say that humanitarian organizations are increasingly required to play the role of “telephone” operator. So I’d be very interested in getting feedback from iRevolution readers on alternative, social media approaches to customer service in the private sector. If you know of any innovative ones, please feel free to share in the comments section below.

The second strategy that humanitarian organizations need to consider is linking this new customer service system to networks of citizen crisis responders. An “operator” on the ARC Facebook page, for example, would triage the incoming posts by “pushing” them into different bins according to topic and urgency. Posts that don’t reflect a life-threatening situation but still require operational response could simply be forwarded to local citizen crisis responders. The rest can be re-routed to professional emergency responders. Geo-fenced alerts from crisis mapping platforms could also play an important role in this respect.

One should remember that the majority of crisis responses are “crowdsourced” by definition since the real first responders are always local communities. For example, “it is well known that in case of earthquakes, such as the one that happened in Mexico City, the assistance to the victims comes first of all from the other survivors [...]” (Gilbert 1998). In fact, estimates suggest that, “no more than 10 per cent of survival in emergencies can be contributed to external sources of relief aid” (Hillhorst 2004). So why not connect humanitarian customer service systems to local citizen crisis responders and thereby make the latter’s response more targeted and efficient rather than simply ad hoc? I’ve used the term “crowdfeeding” to describe this idea in previous blog posts like this one and this one. We basically need a Match.com for citizen based crisis response in which both problems and solutions are crowdsourced.

So where are these “new” citizen crisis responders to come from? How about leveraging existing networks like Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), the UN Volunteer system (UNVs), Red Cross volunteer networks and platforms like Red Cross Volunteer Match? Why not make use of existing training materials like FEMA’s online courses? Universities could also promote the idea of student crisis responders and offer credit for relevant courses.

Update: New app helps Queensland coordinate volunteers.