The role of social media and the internet in the Victorian Bushfires

Duncan Riley

As Victoria woke this morning, the bushfire news continued to get worse. The official death toll for the bushfires now stands at 108 (at the time of writing) and is expected to rise further today. Fires are still threatening homes, water and power supplies, and despite cooler weather and some rain yesterday, dozens of fires remain out of control.

Social media and the internet, perhaps for the first time in a large way in Australia, played a big role in how the latest news from the front was spread, comparable perhaps only to radio. Broadcast television here completely failed yesterday, with stations really only picking up the news last night once they realized how bad it was, and while some newspapers online have kept relatively up-to-date, there has usually be a delay between the news breaking, and it being posted.

Twitter Unsurprisingly perhaps, but Victoria bushfire related tags were among the top trending topics on Twitter Sunday Australian time. The Australian twitter community, particularly in Victoria have been quick in sharing the latest news, where to make donations, and all other relevant information. Surprisingly perhaps, that some of the best efforts on Twitter came from a broadcast radio station.

774Melbourne ABC Local Radio Melbourne has provided the latest news from the event nearly as quickly as it was broadcast on air (and ABC Radio has led in terms of the latest information). I don't know who's running the account, but they deserve universal praise.

CFA_Updates Not an official CFA (Country Fire Authority) account, but a user pulling data from the CFA site, including latest fire warnings, closures, and vital information. Double value given that the CFA site itself failed repeatedly yesterday under a volume of traffic. The account also links to breaking news on other sites.

Sunriseon7 The Twitter account for Channel 7's breakfast program was a little late in getting involved, but has been filling in some of the gaps missed by the ABC. Interesting to see a television program attempt to use Twitter in this way, even if most of their tweets linked back to their own content.

Google Maps mashups

Both News Ltd (Herald Sun/ News.com.au) and Fairfax (The Age) added Google Maps mashups for fire locations and reported deaths Sunday.

Here's the Fairfax mashup, which like all Google Maps can be embedded as well View Larger Map

Flickr/ user generated content

Fire pictures started appearing on Flickr Saturday, and continued to be added do as the weekend progressed. Some incredible shots from affected areas, and those close to the front.

Not all of them are in this pool, but here's some of them

Mainstream media outlets in Australia and abroad asked for, and ran reader submitted photos including Fairfax, News Ltd, and even CNN and the BBC.

Streaming radio

Even radio received a web treatment, with reports on Twitter of people tuning in to the ABC Melbourne stream for the latest. I did for a while (I'm in Melbourne, but we only have one radio in one room), and to be quite honest I had to turn it off it was that distressing.

Blogs/ RSS

Blogs haven't played a huge role, however ABC Melbourne did use their blog platform Sunday as a way to gather donations and commitments of help well before any official appeals from the Salvation Army or Red Cross had begun. Pages and pages of people wanting to help, and people looking for loved ones.

The RSS feed from the CFA site helped enable the CFA Twitter channel (mentioned above) and should be counted in the mix.

Conclusion

Much of the social media used during this disaster has been spontaneous and user generated, and it has played an important role in sharing information about the disaster.

There will no doubt be an inquiry into the fires, and a lot of looking back at what could have been done differently in the coming months.

Better communication may not have saved more lives; the stories of how residents in many country towns had little warning may have been more due to the speed of the fire than communications issues, but knowledge of any sort is power.

The CFA has already slowly entered the information age; along with the RSS feed, they also have a YouTube channel and a couple of station blogs, the next step is to take that data out to more people.

We will never know if social media may have saved lives during this disaster, but if only one person received information from the web, or from Twitter, directly or via someone they knew, and that allowed them to escape in time, then that is validation in itself about the role the space can play.

Our hearts go out for the victims of this disaster. If you can spare even a small payment, the Red Cross is taking donations here.

Disclosure: my wife until recently worked in Emergency Services in Victoria, and part of her role was related to media strategy, including the use of social media.

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