NPR’s Andy Carvin on the Role of Social Media in Gustav Coverage

Andy Carvin’s job, as the senior strategist for social media at NPR, is to build bridges between NPR and its fans and social network users on places like Twitter and Facebook. Carvin once defined “a truly great blog” as a place where a community forms, and where members find themselves almost compelled to join the conversation. 

For Hurricane Gustav, he has led 500 volunteers putting together the Gustav Information Center, which includes a Wiki and a site called “Voices of Gustav.”  The Voices site is set up to accept calls from people who have been displaced, with the idea that volunteers would transcribe the calls and post them online in a searchable format.  That effort tapped into the Utterz Web site.  The effort includes three Twitter feeds including GustavAlerts, which is a breaking weather feed. GustavNews follows news stories and GustavBlogs focuses on how blogs are reporting the storm.  Another another team of 50 or so volunteers is working on transcribing reports from ham radio operators and other radio scans.

You will notice, by the way, that nowhere on the Gustav Information Center do you find an NPR logo, a link to NPR or any mention of NPR at all. It is a product by the people and for the people.

Carvin tells me that he thinks of Twitter as a citizen generated wire service while the wiki is more like a reference desk.

Several times over the last few days, the volunteers have drawn on their experience of working with Carvin in building  Katrina Aftermath.  That groundbreaking site encouraged people to send in breaking news about Hurricane Katrina, including photos and missing person information.

Al Tompkins: You have worked nearly around the clock all weekend on the site. Why is it so important?

Andy Carvin: It’s so easy to forget that there are large numbers of people on the Internet with certain types of expertise that can prove to be invaluable in times of crisis. When you think of typical volunteers in an emergency, it’s often people with EMS backgrounds, Red Cross volunteers and the like, but not people with technology skills. Yet many Internet-savvy people can bring things to the table, pulling together an amazing array of tools and resources that can be useful to the public in times of crisis. So I’m working with an incredible group of these online volunteers to do just that.

Your hurricane page has drawn hundreds of volunteers.  What is it  that you are doing that news sites are not?

Carvin: Actually, a lot of what we’re doing is related to what news orgs are doing. For example, some of the earliest people I saw get on board were staff at Mississippi Public Broadcasting, who immediately began to send out local emergency alerts via Twitter. And the very first person who offered to help was John Tynan, a Web developer at KJZZ Public Radio in Phoenix. So there are definitely volunteers who are coming at this from a journalism perspective.

One challenge that news orgs often face is the ability to mobilize lots of volunteers. Even if you have a huge online development team, it can be a challenge to roll out every online service you’d like to do during an emergency. With this volunteer effort, people are coming out of the woodwork to drop everything and work on hurricane-related mashups, collect information for our wiki, develop text-messaging interfaces, etc.

Meanwhile, a lot of news sites aren’t really designed for heavy public input. They may invite users to post comments, upload photos, etc, but often not much more than that. By utilizing free tools for building wikis, social networking interfaces, Twitter feeds, Google Maps, etc, we’re able to mobilize folks to complete very detailed work and collaborate as equals. Over time, though, I’m hoping to see more of this happen within news sites. At NPR.org, for example, we’re planning to deploy social networking tools later this fall, specifically to start building relationships with users as partners in editorial projects. So in the future, I’m hoping we’ll have both the tools and the human network in place to develop these projects more directly with NPR journalists.

Your team has built a Facebook page that includes a message center.  How does that work?

Carvin: Actually, the Facebook page was set up by one of our volunteers mainly as gateway to direct people to our main collaboration site, a social network located at http://gustav08.ning.com. Other Facebook groups have also popped up all over the place, and we’re trying to reach out to them to make sure we’re not canceling out each other’s work. That’s often a problem in these situations. During Katrina, for example, lots of different websites started collecting info on missing persons, but not in a coordinated fashion, so the data was really inconsistent. We eventually had to pull together a team of volunteers to sort through all the data sets and create an exchange format that would make it more useful to the Red Cross and other relief agencies. It also happens on a smaller scale – people creating competing Google Maps, for example. So much of my time has been spent just getting different independent teams of volunteers talking with each other so they can collaborate and avoid reinventing the wheel.

What is the value of a hurricane wiki?

Carvin: The wiki is intended as a reference guide to news sources, emergency services, charities and the like. There’s very little editorial content there – the go is to help people find useful sources of information and send them on their way. We’re still building out the wiki, though, I’m hoping that as many people are coming to contribute to the wiki as there are to browse it, so we can have it fully ready before the storm comes ashore.

The real action, though, is taking place on our social network, http://gustav08.ning.com. We have around 500 people participating there, many of whom are using the social network to direct individual projects, like the Google Map, divvying out wiki assignments, aggregating user-generated content, etc. The social network’s homepage is also intended as a more dynamic version of the wiki, displaying the latest photos, alerts, news stories, tweets, Utterz audio messages, etc., in real time.

How important has Twitter been to your team?

Carvin: Twitter allowed us to launch and mobilize faster than ever before. During the tsunami and Katrina, much of what we did to pull together was word-of-mouth through email lists and blogs. With Twitter, I was able to get things started by simply telling my Twitter followers I wanted to pull together and needed volunteers. Immediately I saw my tweets being forwarded from one Twitter user to another. And some of these folks forwarding my tweets have tens of thousands of subscribers, so word spread really fast. In the two days since I started, I’ve used Twitter to send out more alerts, request volunteers with specific skill sets, announce new tools we’ve rolled out, etc. We also launched @GustavAlerts, a Twitter account that forwards National Hurricane Center alerts, and are trying to do the same for news stories and blog posts related to Gustav. In a sense, you can break it down this way: the social network is our operations center and live broadcast, the wiki is our reference desk and Twitter is our news wire service.

What could traditional news sites learn from you?

Carvin: The biggest challenge, I think, is breaking down the walls between journalists and the people formerly known as the audience. If you treat them as an audience – treat them passively – don’t expect to get much more from them than letters to the editor. But the public can act as your bookers, your fixers, your librarians, your engineers and even your producers if you can give them a vision of what you want to accomplish together and the space they need to go do it. It’s also important to not fear sending people away from your own website when necessary. Even as NPR builds up its internal social networking infrastructure, for example, we still plan to continue reaching out communities on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc, because that’s where those communities spend most of their time and are comfortable working with each other. They have unique infrastructures and dynamics that could never be fully replicated within a news org, so you need to be prepared to be working across multiple networks and connect the dots. And when a story breaks quickly and you need help, you need to act quickly, too. Use whatever tools are available to get the public involved helping you pull it all together.

What do you wish you could do but don’t have the resources/volunteers/technology to do right now?

Carvin: Right now we mostly need more people – more people to research and produce different sections of the wiki, in particular. For a while we were short on Google Maps experts, but we’ve reached out to Google and they’ve helped connect us with more experts. The thing that’s still missing, though, is the perfect interface for coordinating all of this activity. For 9/11, we used listservs; for tsunami, it was blogs and aggregators, and then for Katrina, there was all of that, plus wikis and a lot of user-generated content. Now we’ve added social networks and Google Maps to the mix. But we still need a better system for coordination, so people don’t duplicate efforts, or worse, cancel each other out. Frankly, the tools may be just fine, but it’s our method of interaction that needs improvement. For one thing, I’m already regretting not having a more disciplined system for passing off assignments to keep things rolling 24/7, and we could have done a better job at organizing assignment boards and identifying team members. Other things I wish we could have done more easily were SMS relays so people could send and receive text messages without having to rely on Twitter, since not everyone has Internet access and Twitter limits the numbers of texts in a given week. Better SMS relay networks is something we’ve talked about since the tsunami but still haven’t mastered yet. And that’s just off the top of my head – I’m sure my volunteers could add hundreds of other things to the list. :-)

What happens to the site once the storm passes?

Carvin:After the Tsunami and Katrina, we kept the projects rolling for a while as long as there was news to share, particularly in terms of charitable opportunities. And given the fact that Hannah is heading to the East Coast, it’s quite possible we’ll have to switch gears to that storm. But once everything quiets down, I’d love to see someone come in independently and analyze everything we did, and help create a template for us to make it easier to mobilize the next time around. I’m very fortunate to have volunteer veterans from previous disasters taking the lead on this project, and it gets a little easier each time. But the tools keep evolving, too, so we need to be nimble enough to integrate the next Twitter, Qik or Ning that comes around during the next disaster. But there’s a lot of work to be done to have better systems in place that make it easier for everyone to mobilize at the drop of a hat and coordinate with news orgs and emergency services agencies. No one ever said this would be easy. :-)

More from Andy Carvin:  In 2008, he helped launched Get My Vote (), which Carvin says, “invites the public to create audio, video or text political commentaries about what motivates them to support specific candidates.”  Read his personal Web site here. This is PBS’ Learning Now site, which “is a weblog that explores how new technology and Internet culture affect how educators teach and children learn.”

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