Recent years have seen microblogging and grassroots responses play powerful roles in major crises, from providing information about the development of events to supporting decision-making (Sutton, Palen & Shklovski, 2008; Palen, Vieweg & Anderson, 2011). New forms of identifying, documenting and addressing needs for resources in different locations are emerging through crowdsourcing, self-organized ‘voluntweeting’ and distributed collaboration during crises (Starbird & Palen, 2011, Boulos et al., 2011). ‘Crisis mappers’ like the Ushahidi Haiti Project (UHP) provide novel ways of crowdsourcing and mapping information, even supporting the task of deploying resources to people in need. Morrow, Mock, Papendieck & Kocmich (2011), for example, describe how the Department of State Analysts for the US government interagency task force and US marines used UHP information to enhance situation awareness and identify “centers of gravity” for deployment of field teams (ibid, p.4). Innovations like ‘Tweak the Tweet’ (TtT), a standard which suggests a uniform format for reports through hashtagging needs, locations and contact details, can promote a shared ‘grammar’ that facilitates computational parsing of tweeted information (Starbird & Palen 2011). Starbird & Palen observe how volunteer translators or ‘voluntweeters’ translated reports from different sources, such as text messages or tweets, using the TtT syntax in response to the Haiti crisis, and worked as ‘remote operators’ to facilitate assistance and collaboration from a distance.
The public – those directly affected, as well as bystanders and volunteers – have always participated in self-organized mobilization and coordination of resources, in parallel to the official mobilization of staff and equipment initiated by calls to alarm centres (Fischer, 2008; Stallings & Quarantelli, 1985). One recent example examined by Kendra, Wachtendorf & Quarantelli (2003) describes how members of the public improvised waterborne evacuation of victims of 9/11 by mobilizing boats and ferries available near the shoreline of Lower Manhattan after the World Trade Centre towers collapsed. Social media extend the possibilities for such self-organized mobilization of resources by enabling greater and more localized awareness of needs and available resources and by supporting communication.