Red Cross Launches New Digital Operations Center

Disaster Operations Center, American Red Cross

According to Wendy Harman, the Director of Social Strategy at the American Red Cross, there are about 200 house fires reported daily—so they respond to disasters on a daily basis. But with huge disasters, like the recent tornados that swept part of our country, it’s essential for their organization to be in tune with the when and where of these events.

With the launch of their new Digital Operations Center, which was unveiled today as part of their Disaster Operations Center, the Red Cross expects to be more connected and aware of disaster reports in areas across the world in a more organized way.

This afternoon’s unveiling featured a site tour and a very interesting panel discussion with experts in the social media crisis response and journalism: Noel Dickover, Wendy Harman, Alex Howard of O’Reilly Media, and Patrick Meier of Ushahidi, a nonprofit tech company that develops apps for interactive mapping.

Social Media Has Changed Disaster Response Expectations 

Gale McGovern and Michael Dell Unveil the Digital Operation Center (Photo by Geoff Livingston)

The group agreed that social media has broken the barriers communication channels had 50 years ago, whereas today, we have access to disaster information almost immediately. Alex emphasized the changing landscape with this thought: Journalists are said to be writing the first draft of history, but now more people have a pen.

This is a form of crowdsourcing that the Red Cross’ new command center will use, a model that’s not new, said Patrick. He used the example of the 9-1-1 emergency hotline; it was the original disaster crowdsourcing platform developed in the 1950s, he said.

With social media, people are able to report disasters in their area firsthand, before professional journalists, medical response teams, or the Red Cross can get there. The true first responders are the people who are at the disaster when it happens, Patrick said.

Social media has opened the gates to self-reporting, and in moments of crisis, it becomes an incredible resource of information for disaster response teams. Organizations like the Red Cross, who are listening to the chatter online, can see when and where a disaster occurs, but most importantly, who needs help and how to get it to them quickly.

An impressive example of this is the PulsePoint app for smartphones. An individual can use this app to report if they’re having a heart attack, which will notify app users in the area to come to help the person when the emergency response team is on the way.


Michael Dell, Gayle McGovern and Wendy Harman in the American Red Cross Digital Operation Center (Photo by Geoff Livingston)

Red Cross Still Learning How to Monitor Info Overload

This is a big step for the Red Cross and an appropriate one for an organization that does what they do. In addition to offering disaster response teams, the Red Cross also wanted to improve the emotional support they offer with the new command center.

With last week’s tornado disaster, the Red Cross was able to test run their new system, giving them the big picture of the disaster landscape reflected on social media. This proved that the data they collected by listening to crisis chatter online could turn into action.

For example, an Indiana town hit by the tornados was isolated from receiving aid. When they talked about it online, the Red Cross was able to connect with them—without which they may not have known about that community’s needs—and were able to notify them that help was en route but delayed.

The command center gives the Red Cross a nice dashboard where they can keep an eye on different keywords that would be indicative of a disaster striking at the moment it occurs, but it is still a lot of information to monitor. In the command center tour, Wendy and Maribel Sierra of Dell said they are still in the learning process on how to manage and respond to the influx.

Because everyone now has the ability to publicly broadcast real time information, there is a risk of false reports getting to disaster relief organizations, Alex said. The rest of the panel agreed, and Wendy said the Red Cross has experience in filtering that information, which is part of the protocol they’re creating with the new command center.

Next Steps & Takeaway 

Alex Howard, Wendy Harman and Noel Dickover (Photo by Geoff Livingston)

The Digital Operations Center is going to give Red Cross a better idea of the magnitude of disaster, said Noel, and help the organization determine the level of response they should deploy. But he says the Red Cross’ next step is to rethink the structure of their operations; in other words, how they will use the information given to them, how it will relate to their processes, and reporting in the aftermath.

He added the importance of using volunteers to help with this new response model. Volunteers can’t monitor the data for 24 hours, he said, but they can certainly show you which direction your disaster response plan needs to go.

Having a social media presence changes the game for organizations, especially critical ones like the American Red Cross. Alex stated that it forces organizations to be more transparent and correct their mistakes.

Wendy said the the new command center gives the public a seat at the Red Cross’ operations table, which they hope will open the doors to more collaborative opportunities.

This is an ambitious endeavor for the Red Cross, and I can’t think of a more appropriate organization to take it on. Their success, however, lies in how they use the information they collect. They are determined to use this tool to improve their programs, which if executed correctly, would take disaster response to incredible heights where they can save more lives and reduce the harsh effects of disasters on people’s lives.

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2 thoughts on “Red Cross Launches New Digital Operations Center”

  1. Hi! Thanks for this comprehensive and thoughtful post about our Digital Operations Center launch. 🙂 I am part of the social engagement team here at Red Cross and we really appreciate your insights and your participation. Here’s to many more great things in the future!

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