DisCONNECT, Twitter, and the Flood of 2011

What was DisCONNECT doing through the flood? Honestly, not a lot, but in some respects, a fair bit.

When I’m not out being a nurse pretending to care about people’s life stories (or whatever they make up at the time to sound impressive), I’m usually found out as a volunteer medic. Before that I worked for the state ambulance service in dispatch, but had to leave when I started nursing. Before that I was also part of the state’s volunteer emergency service which helps out in times of disaster. Because of all these roles, watching the floods in Brisbane (my home town) and not being called resulted in me pacing the room, checking the phone, and kicking myself for not going to Rockhampton and Bundaberg when I was asked to (I couldn’t be away from home for the block of time they needed me though, so I didn’t have a choice). I signed up to volunteer with the cleanup crew, donated, and sat back going “What the hell am I going to do now?”

Firstly, where I am in Brisbane experienced no flooding. It never floods here. Any “severe thunderstorms” like those that lashed The Gap (for other Brisbane residents reading this) never hit us that hard. So there was nothing to do here in my area. Heading out during the incident to look for work would have been dangerous and fool-hardy, and often just results in getting yourself in trouble, plus most of the areas where sandbagging was going on were cut off from my area (either due to floods or high traffic). There wasn’t a whole lot I could do except sit back and watch. Or could I?

1945 BNE River was at 4.2M steady, Brember 19.25M steady @ 1958 #qldfloods

DisCONNECT’s twitter stream was looking pretty empty up until recently, mostly because I have no real use for it at all. However Twitter quickly evolved into the front line of information as people from all over Brisbane started posting reports, including news agencies and some emergency services, often before it appeared on the TV or media websites (or at least concurrently). Some of the first pictures out of the flood zones (or as the flood was approaching) were on Twitter, not the regular media, and from all the information coming in from all over Brisbane it was possible to construct a picture of what was really going on out there. One thing I could do was monitor communications and post updates, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two days while waiting to be called out. Much of the info I posted was either from various comms networks, 2nd hand info which seemed reliable, or reposts of official information.

Normally I’d discount Twitter as a practically useless service which was made for self important dicks (hence it’s surprising that I never bothered to use it too much before hand!) but in this case it actually did have a purpose. I gleaned more information from Twitter than I did from the media outlets, or at least I got it before the media did. The media eventually caught on and ended up watching their own Facebook page and the Twitter hashtag #qldfloods for pictures and news. Some people didn’t have access to a TV or a computer, namely because power was cut to several suburbs because of the flooding, but the mobile networks mostly stayed intact (except Vodafone, big surprise!) and so they could access services like Twitter and look for information about what was going on, especially since it’s reasonably low bandwidth unlike the media-heavy Courier Mail site.

Brisbane water is SAFE TO DRINK. #qldfloods

Of course there was a lot of bullshit going around as well, lots of false information plus a bunch of pointless shit that had no meaning. But most of it was informative, and most people were interested in propagating useful information, adding new info, or putting out offers of help. Then there was the much less useful #prayforaustralia hashtag, which was described by someone as “a way to feel like you’re doing something while doing nothing.” The nature of Twitter means that bad info can propagate just as much as useful info, and unfortunately every so often debunked info like a crocodile being seen in the Brisbane River had to be soundly crushed by people who were better informed. But despite that, the service was largely informative and useful for everyone.

So do I think Twitter is useful? You bet. I’ll admit I’ve been converted after seeing how much info was available, and after participating myself with more info which some people couldn’t find easily elsewhere. I’d say that for major incidents or breaking events, Twitter definitely has its place. Not entirely convinced as to whether or not I’d give a shit after that (I’m already sick of Facebook, which I was forced to get after my friends practically refused to have anything to do with me until I did so) because really I don’t think we need to know much more about what our friends are doing, but given that the mobile network (and the Internet) remained active during this time while other services were cut, it’s clear that Twitter is sort of like the new ham radio of the 21st century. Then again if the network went down we’d really be in the dark, and few people own, let alone know how to operate, a shortwave radio these days, so we’d really be up shit’s creek (or the Brisbane River as the case may be, though arguably they’re the same thing).

With no SIM card in your phone, there is NO info for 000 displayed except tower. Avoid using this unless no service available. #qldfloods

If you’re looking to post info on Twitter during a disaster, remember the following:

  1. Try to stick to stuff that you reasonably believe to be true. “?13 dead” (query 13 dead) is fine, but “crocodile in brisbane!” or “UFO blamed for disaster!” is less useful (and less plausible).
  2. If it’s unconfirmed, list it as such. Don’t say “200 dead!” when a report said that there may be 200 dead. “May” and “is” are two different things; one is a possibility, the other is definitive.
  3. Don’t retweet bad information or unverified info presented as fact. It confuses people. The “croc in Brisbane river” and “Dam about to burst!” rumours appeared way more often than they should have.
  4. Propagate useful information/accurate information by retweeting it, or by posting it. It keeps real information visible and helps dispel rumours.
  5. Post info, even if it has been posted, provided it’s reasonably accurate. Keeping current information which is probably true (or clearly marked as speculation) keeps it current and easy to find.

Also, enough of the god damn prayers. Do something useful for a change.

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