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Emergency planning: how can social media contribute to situational awareness?

A recent report by a British NGO lists the ten most financially impactful natural disasters of 2021. The floods in Europe are in second place. Reason enough to look at what information was available online at the time of the disaster and how to make it accessible quickly for emergency planning and response purposes.

In 2021, we experienced an extreme amount of natural disasters. Besides the enormous personal suffering, they have also left their financial traces. The British aid organisation Christian Aid recently listed the ten financially most devastating natural disasters of 2021. The cost of a variety of disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, droughts and heat waves, amounts to more than €150 billion. The most expensive event was caused by Hurricane Ida in the United States and cost almost €60 billion.

Floods in Europa

The floods in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg were the second most expensive natural disaster of 2021. In mid-July, several areas were hit by extreme rainfall. This resulted in severe flooding that killed 196 Germans and 42 Belgians. The damage was enormous, with estimated costs of no less than €38 billion.

In Limburg (the Netherlands), rivers overflowed, causing the centre of Valkenburg to be flooded. The damage there is estimated at €1.8 billion. A further €1.2 billion is expected to be needed to prevent similar disasters in the future.

Situational awareness

The Institute for Safety and Crisis Management carried out an evaluation for the South Limburg Safety Region in order to draw lessons from this disaster. They named various challenges, one of which was forming situational awareness. According to those involved in this evaluation, local assessments were difficult: “The disaster occurred at different speeds for the municipalities and the impact varied everywhere. It was therefore a major challenge to constantly create an overall real-time overview,” said Hans Verheijen, the chairman on duty of the South Limburg Safety Region and mayor of Sittard-Geleen. With so much information available, it was hard to respond quickly and inform the local citizens properly.

Interested in more case studies?

Please watch the replay of our webinar, where you will learn more about social media monitoring for emergency planning and response.

Emergency planning and social media

Billions of messages are shared on social media every day. From recipes to cat videos and from daily activities to news updates. Many messages also appear online during natural disasters. We see from daily practice that some people post messages on social media even faster than calling the emergency number. These messages often contain valuable information, such as:

  • What exactly is going on;
  • What damage or disruption is being caused;
  • Where people are located;
  • How people are experiencing the crisis;
  • What help people need.

For disaster resilience purposes, it is therefore important to also include these messages in the information provision. However, because there is an infinite amount of data available, this can be complex and time-consuming. And that creates friction during a natural disaster. Based on that feedback from responders, we at PublicSonar have developed an online monitoring tool. A wizard and the use of Artificial Intelligence enable you to collect the messages that are most relevant to you. Curious about our AI solution? Please feel free to ask for a demo tailored to your situation.

Social media messages during the floods in Europe

Mid-July residents were immediately sharing many reports of the floods online. Numerous images showed the extent to which some areas were affected.. Below are some examples of messages from citizens that illustrate the situation.

Floods social media

Apart from showing exactly what is going on, these messages also contain locations. The message below indicates that the water in Stevensweert has risen considerably. By keeping an eye on social media messages, you can immediately see where people are, where help is needed and whether a situation is escalating. Especially in the case of a natural disaster, you want to know exactly what is happening and where. After all, not all floods are directly relevant to you. To collect only the messages that are relevant to your geographical area, you can filter by locations, street names, points of interest or postal codes, for example.

location on social media for emergency planning

Live videos on YouTube can also be captured directly in our social media monitoring tool. In the example below, the situation in Meerssen in Limburg was streamed. This gives emergency responders an instant view of what is happening and it allows them to make rapid and well-informed decisions about what resources to deploy.

Sentiment analysis

Finally, social media messages also reflect well on how residents experience a crisis. The analysis below shows that 25% of the online messages about the floods have a negative sentiment. Although this can already be valuable information, the sub-sentiment gives more direction. PublicSonar enables an understanding of what kind of negative emotions are involved. In this case, it was about angry, confused and sad people. Such information can be used to determine the most suitable way to engage with the public. Want to know more about this? Read our blog on sentiment analysis.

Sentiment emergency planning and response

How to start?

Due to climate change, such natural disasters are expected to occur more frequently – possibly also in 2022. Research by the World Weather Attribution concludes that extreme rainfall events, like the one in Europe last year, have become 1.2 to 9 times more likely to occur and will be 3 to 19% more severe. That is why it is extra important to constantly refine preparedness and access to the supporting tools. Social media monitoring capabilities should be part of the equation. Are you curious how PublicSonar facilitates social media monitoring for emergency responders? Join our webinar, request a free demo or contact us at to learn more about real-time online situational awareness for emergency planning and response.

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