Panel Examines Role of Social Media During the Storm

The Rudin Center for Transportation convened a panel of experts to look at the role social media played in disseminating information for New York City’s transportation agencies during Hurricane Sandy. (This came on the heels of a Rudin Center report examining impact of the storm on transportation across the city, “Transportation During and After Hurricane Sandy). The Nov. 27 panelists consisted of Aaron Donovan from the MTA, Robin Lester Kenton from NYC DOT, Ben Kabak of Second Ave Sagas, Tyson Evans of the New York Times, and JP Chan also from the MTA. Each of the speakers confirmed that they utilized social media such as Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, Tumblr and Youtube to help spread updates on the conditions of New York City’s trains, bridges, tunnels and subway lines.

Kenton of the DOT (where she is director of strategic communication) said the Department of Transportation is most proud of its Tumblr site due to the versatility it affords, and relied, too, on Twitter for reaching out during Sandy. The DOT faced a similar problem in 2011 when Hurricane Irene hit and there was great demand for information from the public; the DOT website crashed then, and officials used Twitter as their sole means of news updates. Still, this news outlet presents some interesting challenges for the DOT. The first was message coordination between agencies: who would post what, should there be duplication between different branches of the government, do certain informational tweets need prior approval?

Simultaneously, DOT faced the problem of establishing a communication culture during a time of crisis. Ordinarily t he release of internal agency information would take days to reach the public, quite the opposite of the minute to minute updates on social media sites. People on social media sites expect quicker news feeds and answers to their questions. Nolan Levenson, research assistant at the Rudin Center and coauthor of the report) added that Sandy presented an unprecedented shift in how the public searched for updates. “During the storm, residents turned to social media through smartphones and the internet to access the latest information both from transportation providers and fellow citizens,” Levenson said.

Aaron Donovan of MTA followed up Kenton’s presentation by detailing his agency’s efforts in releasing information as quickly as possible. The press office of the MTA was asked to be transparent, timely, and not conservative. There was a preference of speed over quality, a bias toward action that resulted in the MTA’s positing pictures and videos no matter what type of camera the images came from. Photos got the agency’s message out quicker and better while simultaneously showing the devastation being caused by the storm. Without the images, most New York transit users would have no idea of the challenges facing the MTA. With this newfound transparency, the MTA estimates it reached more than two-thirds of their Twitter followers during Hurricane Sandy.

Ben Kabak of Second Ave. Sagas said the dilemma he faced during the storm was ensuring the spreading of correct, relevant information. He walked a tight rope between speed and accuracy. While press conferences from officials provided sources of pertinent and accurate information, some things careening around Twitter were blatantly false. Kabak added that deciphering what was real and what was contrived was difficult, as Sandy presented some situations that would appear imaginary, yet were quite real — for instance, Governor Mario Cuomo’s request for $600 million in federal assistance to restore the South Ferry subway station in lower Manhattan, a total greater than the cost of building the station.

— Alexander James Powell

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