How Geeks Can Help In Disasters (San Diego Fire 2007)


Wow, it’s been a long few days. A sad and yet hopeful few days. Even though I went through a “100-year flood” in Washington, going through the so-called “Firestorm 2007” in San Diego, I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would about disasters and what people need.

This evening I was taking a break from the consistent twittering about the San Diego fire, watched the Red Sox dominate Game 1, and chatted with Erin and Ted over an awesome pour of Guinness. We discussed what has happened to my twitter feed. It blew up.

It didn’t blow up because I’m good looking (although my wife doesn’t complain), popular (never been that), or entertaining. It blew up because I have been providing an essential and steady stream of necessary information that any one major media source couldn’t.

Even though I was aggregating two TV channels, a radio station, a local newspaper, friends and even strangers’ eyewitness reports via a free phone number, email, the contact form on this blog, SMS, phone calls and other twitter feeds, it wasn’t enough. For three days straight I’ve been pushing this content out. It was a one-man communication station. And although it was helpful for many people (both locally and internationally), I am very glad the worst has come and gone — not only because of the disaster, but because I don’t know that I could continue. It’s been extremely tiring.

As we’re learning that mainstream media is unable to keep up with the demand necessary to distribute information, for whatever reasons, there is a major opportunity for us, the normal every day “Joe’s” to make a major difference.

The case for teams

After a few hours of updates people started creating Google maps mashups of all kinds of information. It was great. KPBS did one, a friend of a friend did one, and even a few people I didn’t know informed me of some. I even created one, but I couldn’t keep up with it. And that’s the problem.

Twitter is still a relatively geeky tool. I am going to make a reasonably generic statement that many of them are geeks. Many of those geeks could have been organized better to create those maps faster and more accurately than any other media source. Currently, that’s the only advantage large media outlets have over us, the people in the middle of the situation with first-hand knowledge — teams that work together.

I don’t mean to say that I don’t want or like mainstream media, but they just can’t compete with the detailed information we can provide. The one thing they can do is aggregate data into multiple methods of consumption like Google maps, Google earth overlays, video streaming, audio streaming, photographs, etc. Not one of those methods is out of reach of a small team of technophiles and eyewitnesses.

Ideas on how to help people in teams

Ok, tactically, how do we do that? Well, I have a few ideas based off of what has happened in the past few days.

collective aggregation idea1. Create one site for all data aggregation: Ideally, this would be created before the next disaster, and would be able to accompany internationalization. Usage of a subdomain would be great to allow for multiple collaboration on multiple issues at one time (it would be presumptuous to think only one disaster occurs at one time around the world).

Additionally, having spaces for 3 live video streaming feeds and 3 audio feeds allows people to tune in to what they think is important. The video would play continuously but the audio could be selected by the end user. A Google maps mashup would be cool, and a twitter feed (as I’ve experienced) essential. I forgot to add a space for a Flickr feed as well, but that would be good too. Obviously everything would be automatically refreshed, no extra page loads.

2. Organize and centralize quickly: Be sure this website url is disseminated all over the place. Every blog, every twitter feed, etc. Massive distributed marketing of this site would be the best.

3. Offer to be a tag-team: One thing that I wish people would have done is get together with another person and tag-team their particular technology. Video producers and videographers go in pairs, film from points of interest or places where you can get the big picture. Another video team head to get the details. Same with an audio streaming channel (or podcasts). Data can be relayed by “runners” if not transmitted via satellite internet feeds directly. Mainstream media aggregation can happen in pairs as well, and each team could take turns. And last, the technology mashup guys could make maps and other automatically updating visual components. This sounds like a lot of people, but even just a team of 5 would be be sufficient for a great amount of data that mainstream couldn’t do.

Conclusion: Just do it

Now, obviously I’ve been thinking about this for a little while but the ideas could be better. Even better than formulating a plan on what I might do differently in the future, simply aggregating data would be enough. I think simply bringing together a small team and just gathering information into one site, instead of the individual data streams would have worked better during these San Diego fires.

I would love your thoughts on this subject. Please, feel free to leave a comment below and let’s discuss what can be done. The information put out by my twitter feed was critical to thousands of people at any point in time, and I’m just one person. Think of what could be done with a team, and let’s help the next disaster area figure this stuff out before they need to.


[tags]sandiegofire, san diego fire, san diego, fire, fires, firestorm, 2007, emergency, disaster, mainstream media, citizen journalists[/tags]

Nate Ritter lives in Austin, Texas (U.S.), popularized the #hashtag and creates web applications for a living. He also does miles and point hacking to enable cheap travel for his family. More here →

29 Comments on "How Geeks Can Help In Disasters (San Diego Fire 2007)"

  1. Tola Oguntoyinbo says:

    We are working on a tool that does this, sort of. It’s in an early alpha state and we’re working on improving the laundry list of basic functionality problems that you’ll run into…but it works, sort of:

    It would be great to talk to you about the “aggregated” future of crisis and disaster reporting. If you think it would be useful, drop us a line.


  2. Misha says:

    I for one have been watching you and thinking about the implications of what you are doing on international crises and peacekeeping efforts (having been and lived in those situations.) I am fascinated not just by your twittering but this post, too, and the implications you are drawing. Keep thinking. I am. :)

  3. Misha says:

    PS Most importantly – very glad you and T are OK! ox to you both! :)

  4. John Frost says:

    Very much glad you’re okay. Your reports have been very valuable and your ideas today should start a great discussion on this. Something like NING, but for emergencies.

  5. John Frost says:

    First, glad you and yours are okay. Second, thank you for providing such a valuable experience.

    Aggregation of Tools and Scalability is important. If there was some tool similar to Ning that could be cloned for each emergency that would great. Perhaps some non-profit is out there working on this right now… or perhaps might make a donation to help set something like this up.

    Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading more about your reflections on the experience.

  6. Quentin says:

    First, excellent coverage of the situation on Twitter, I was glued to it. A great source.

    I was struck more by the means of communication rather than the aggregation: rapidly updating factual snippets were much more informative than TV and had the permanency of print that radio couldn’t give, allowing searching and backtracking.

    You address the difference between centralized institutions and dispersed teams for media distribution. I had a look at a tangential area – the actual management of disasters via ad hoc information services. It’s here: . Skip the opening stuff about institutional ontologies. The bit I’m referring to is “Other Approaches.”

  7. Jeremy says:

    Nate, thank you for your timely updates via twitter.

    My own company, Travature, like many in San Diego had to temporarily close our office. What we ended up doing to keep track of the changing news, was to throw together our own San Diego Fire Mashup of the sources we were checking the most. It sort of, at a real rough and basic level, addresses you are talking about in your post. We included: the great KPBS Google map of the fire area, the realtime twitter and blogger streams from the LA Times, SignonSanDiego, KPBS, and of course NateRitter, plus the latest photos coming into Flickr and videos coming in to Youtube.

    We were using it internally so we could keep track of things a little easier, but started offering it up 2 days ago to others people, as well, and have been amazed at the number of people who have been using it.

    Check it out at

    -Stay safe San Diego

  8. jac says:

    super basic, i was playing with the same idea as travature, but see they are further along. first mashup:

  9. nate says:

    Guys, all your work is awesome, but we need collaboration from eyewitnesses as the best source of info. I would love to take all your hard (and awesome) work and organize it into a centralized citizen journalist arena which could be used for others. A kind of plug-and-chug for resources that anyone could utilize and add to.

    jac, your url doesn’t work.

    Can we come together on a standardized format?

  10. Also, Nate, the twitter consolidated fire feed is something that was done quickly by numist – I documented it here:

  11. nate says:

    Gabe, that’s awesome, I was wondering about that myself. That was a great resource for me to chat with folks who were also posting fire info. Nice automation, love it.

  12. jeremy says:

    Nate, I’d be glad to help with the consolidation.
    Maybe if you’d like expand a bit on your thought process?
    Are you thinking of consolidating the twitter streams as Gabe points out, or a Fire related Citizen Journalist type Wiki, or something more elaborate?
    Just let me know, if there is anything we can do to help, we will!

  13. nate says:

    Great, I’m waiting to see if anyone else would like to come together to help make this happen, and then perhaps we could have a conference call to get some of the questions worked out. From there we could document what we want it to do and look like and then go hog-wild.

    Sound good everyone?

  14. BTW, if you guys would like a place to brainstorm, feel free to use – editing is open.

  15. Jeremy says:

    Sounds good, just email me the conference call info, when your ready to go.

  16. Tola says:

    We’re happy to help also. I think Jeremy asks a good question/makes a good point. A best-practices wiki for communicating (producing content) in a crisis would probably be useful. On the other side of that, it might be useful to explore what the basic and most informative content items of a crisis mashup would be.

  17. nate says:

    Awesome, thanks to Gabe we have which I just started content on. Please feel free to add ideas, resources, your name and contact info, etc.

    This is an awesome response guys/gals. Let’s do this!

  18. Great! I’m in. Let me know how I can help. MindTouch will be happy to donate software and hosting. Everything you describe is easy to slap together with Deki Wiki, even the streaming vids would be simple:

    The best part is that changing the pages to aggregate info on a different topics is really easy too; especially once the page is laid out.

    I’ve been on the road with the family all week; so, my inbox is pretty full. Probably best to hit me over Facebook.

  19. Tola says:

    I wanted to throw in a couple more thoughts and then I’ll move over to the wiki. I think that there are two parts to this to consider – publishing and aggregating. “Standard” processes could be developed for publishing, including recommendations on where to publish, how to properly tag content, and suggestions for simple publishing tools (this includes possibly building one from scratch). I’m thinking that one of the keys to getting content to the right places in a crisis is to communicate where and how to publish information before a crisis. This is where folks at Flickr, Youtube, and Twitter could probably help out in some way.

    On the other side is the aggregation piece. We all know that there are lots of ways to aggregate content. There is no single right way to do it – but there could be a standard for defining what content should be presented in case of a crisis. If this is defined, the myriad of sources that pop-up in times like these might be more likely to provide the same information. I know I’m making a bunch of assumptions here, but it’s a rough cut.

    I’ll throw this out there too – all of this makes me think about some sort of a “hydra strategy” for crisis communications. If one part fails, the system still works.

  20. nate says:

    Tola, those are some outstanding comments and thoughts. I’m still digesting them, but overall I love how you’ve thought this through. Let’s be sure we get a quick revision out there and then iterate as necessary to hit the points you’re making.

    Regarding the “myriad of sources”, that was one of the problems I’d like to solve. There always seem to be a myriad of sources and it would be best if the duplicate data was “de-duped” and then sent through a crucible to end up with refined, no-fluff information output to and by the general public.

    Bring it on Tola. I love your thought process.

  21. nate says:

    Oh, and Aaron, we’re looking over the Deki Wiki by MindTouch and it may be a good first rev type of software to use. I’m not sure yet if it will have the flexibility we’ll want in the end, but it may be a very nice first shot at doing something quickly and have enough of a feature set to accomplish the goals.

    Thanks for offering that.

  22. atonymous says:

    Have you learned how they handle an amber alert. Could you use some of that knowledge too? And recovery of hostages or military personnel in hostile situations. Certainly some of what you want to do is already in that template.

  23. My take on the issue is this – there’s going to be this or something very similar happening. Somebody has to do it. My thought is this – there’s no particular reason for you not to be the one to have done it.

    Frankly, I’m glad to have been a part of its foundation. Rather proud, in fact.

  24. Zena Weist says:

    Glad you are save, thanks for the updates via twitter. For me, with friends close by, your updates were extremely important.

    Thanks for finding my post and your comments.

    The aggregator needs to happen, citizen journalism is where people are getting their information – it’s sans the sensationalism, it’s authentic, it’s NOW and just…well, frankly – better. I agree with John Frost on the Ning approach and I think non-profit is a good idea (to keep it for crisis communications/emergencies – where those that need the info can go w/o ads, sensationalism, etc.)

    Thanks again!

  25. Alan Gray says:

    Nate, glad you are OK.
    We had a writer down there, but she got caught up just saving herself, her home and friends, so we got very little out.

    You guys did an amazing job.
    What can we do to help and contribute?


  26. I’m going to use this as a bully-pulpet forum for a moment, because I can and this is relevant to the discussion in a rather round-about way. I would also say that I’m not yelling at anybody here – I’m yelling at the mainstreamers.

    I’m sick and tired of the comparisons between the ’07 wildfire and the Katrina disaster in New Orleans. Everybody’s so bloody proud of how a state full of people able to afford million-dollar closet-space is able to pull through a disaster better than a state on the low-end of the income bracket that consistently fails to convince Congress that it needs some of the money Congress is so jolly to throw around.

    Black people can pull through disasters, by the way. They did pretty freaking well on their lonesomes in New Orleans, and they were alone. FEMA only said it was going to help, it never actually got around to helping (unless you count it’s own ingenous solution to the overpopulation problem – killing off the old and infirm).

    If you’re going to say that Louisiana didn’t rise to the challenge, you’d be absolutely right. If you then bothered to mention that it was because there hasn’t been ten minutes in the state’s life that it’s ever been able to afford the infrastructure required to rise to that challenge, then you’d be more correct than the classist swine on the news media.

    If there is aggregate citizen journalism, the “Geek’s County News Network”, then it should exist for this reason – all people have biases. In the mainstream news media, you have to change the channel to even have a hope of somebody mentioning the biases you just heard. In aggregate news, you will get point and counterpoint – there are too many people involved not to.

  27. nate says:

    Edmund, I appreciate the point you’re trying to make. Although, the only thing I would like to see an aggregate citizen news network make is news, not commentary or opinion. The reason it worked so well on my twitter feed is because I had no opinion (other than calling looters idiots, which is pretty much a fact anyway).

    I would rather we create something that puts out helpful facts than any kind of commentary at all, if that’s possible. Twitter is wonderful in that regard because you have 140 characters to get to the point, not tell a story or hypothesize reasons. It just is. And, personally, I like the utilitarian function of a service like that. When it’s necessary, it’s used. When it’s opinion, you can call your neighbor. Let’s make something useful.


  28. Great work, Nate.

    I have a batch of friends in New Orleans and have watched some of the very slow rebuilding post-disaster – the neighborhoods being coordinated by email and blog and wiki and a huge dose of old-fashioned walking around.

    My next suggestion for twitter based communications in a disaster is to take advantage of some level of more permanent storage and generate the twitter stream as a series of updates from that. As an example, I hooked up a feed from Arborwiki ( into Twitter ( via Twitterfeed. Every 30 minutes it reports the recent changes and the wiki summaries of what you posted out. Ideally you’d make this run in real time, but as a proof of concept it works great: the twitter gets the pithy version, and the wiki accumulates the long one.

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