Red Cross uses Web 2.0 to update disaster victims, workers

Red Cross gets presence on Google Maps, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube to aid victims

On Tuesday, Wendy Harman, senior specialist for interactive media at the American Red Cross, was working to set up a Facebook page to solicit donations for the organization, which has been working to help the victims in the states ravaged by recent floods and tornadoes.

Facebook is but one of the Web 2.0 and social media tools the nonprofit is relying on to help relay information to and from storm victims and Red Cross volunteers on the ground in areas affected by the recent natural disasters.

The organization has created an online newsroom powered by the WordPress blogging tool that is dedicated to providing information on flood damages along with a Google Maps mashup that shows where the organization is working. The organization has also created a Twitter channel, a presence on online photo sharing site Flickr and a YouTube channel.

On its main blog, for example, the organization Tuesday posted updated lists of shelters and food and supply distribution sites in Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas and Indiana. While some of the tools were created for the latest disaster - like the Google Maps mashup - others have been used over the past year and a half as the organization tapped free, easy-to-use tools to help its workers and to inform the public of their work.

"[The Google Maps mashup] is a good way to visualize in an interactive way our response," Harman said. "Once you see all those pins on a map you say, 'Wow.' It is a pretty alarming visual. I think that is why it has resonated."

The Google mashup, for example, shows that the organization has ongoing disaster relief operations in Michigan, Nebraska, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and West Virginia and other states because of the recent flooding and tornadoes.

The online newsroom was created to provide updates to the national media, but has since added new features such as links to audio clips from volunteers and victims that are posted to the micro-blogging site Twitter. The recordings are made using the Utterz multimedia blogging site, which relays the messages to Twitter. The recording can be heard via PCs or mobile phones, Harman added.

While the online newsroom was originally set up to provide an automated way to update the national media about relief efforts, it has since grown larger than that.

"The original goal was to try to provide that real-time information so we don't have to spend our personal capital answering phone calls," Harman added. "It has grown into a bigger project than that. Our audience has grown internally across the American Red Cross. Our employees and volunteers across the country have been very interested in following it. All these tools are super simple. We're trying to bring them together to tell our story."

In the future, the agency plans to expand its use of the various Web 2.0 tools, she added. For example, while it now uses Twitter to provide links to the audio clips from Utterz, the agency would like to be able to use Twitter to provide updates on shelter locations during a disaster. Twitter, Harman noted, would be a good tool for this function because users can receive updates called Tweets on mobile devices if they cannot access a PC.

"We have recognized the importance of being able to get information out to the public very quickly and accurately," she added. "We've pinpointed these tools as ones that make it easy for us to do that."

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Heather Havenstein

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