How San Francisco is using social networks to get ready for The Big One

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A city has never developed its own social network before, but San Francisco wouldn’t be synonymous with tech if it didn’t lead the charge.

SF72 helps San Francisco residents plan an escape route in an emergency.

The city on Thursday launched SF72, which is a social platform of sorts that’s designed for disasters . The Department of Emergency Management didn’t set out to create a new Facebook with SF72. The city’s team decided to use existing social networks—Zuckerberg’s mainstay, Twitter, Airbnb, and hyperlocal startups like Nextdoor.

SF72 plugs into those networks and leverages the city’s abundant tech resources to make emergency planning a less frightening, seat-of-your-pants experience. It turns out that doom-and-gloom earthquake predictions don’t exactly send people running to map an exit strategy. Instead, they take the “la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you” approach.

“We found through research and user testing that people were intimidated by the types of preparedness information available because it tended to be overwhelming,” said Kate Lydon, the public sector lead for SF72 developer IDEO. “People don’t respond to information that’s fear-based. SF72 is designed around the idea that being prepared is based on social connection. That’s something we can do in our everyday lives.”

How it works

San Francisco’s emergency management team wants you to be prepared for the worst, but scaring you into stocking up on canned food and flashlights isn’t working. The influx of plugged-in residents who work in or near the tech industry led to a more social take on disaster preparedness.

SF72 in its current form has three main functions: It serves as a resource guide, helps you form a plan of action—including a guide for supplies you need to buy—and in the case of an actual emergency offers up real-time information with Google Maps integration and crowdsourced updates.

The how-to-prepare information is useful—including prompts to update Facebook with your status in an emergency and to sign up for Airbnb to find housing or offer rooms in the wake of a disaster.

But the real-time map when used in CrisisMode has the potential to be pivotal in the wake of an earthquake, terrorist attack, or other disaster. Google helped the organization with mapping, so people can see which routes are blocked and where nearby shelters are located. A transportation feed from offers real-time traffic updates. In an emergency, the Department of Emergency Management will use the hub to post official updates, and someone on the team will curate a Twitter feed with crowdsourced updates in case the official stream lags behind. Emergency Mode is currently off, but SF72 gives you a walk-through to familiarize yourself before a crisis strikes.

When CrisisMode is turned on, SF72's emergency map will provide crucial information.

SF72 will roll out more features in coming months, and an app is also in the works. The site is optimized for smartphones. Not every San Franciscan has a smartphone—I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s true—so the SF72 team hopes the emphasis on sharing both resources and information will translate from social networks to real-life networks.

“Social connection isn’t limited to the digital,” said Rob Dudgeon, the department’s deputy director in charge of emergency services. “As we were talking to people about SF72, they were talking about natural social networks: people in their church, people in their neighborhood association, people in the bicycle coalition. It’s a great way of tapping into these networks as well. There may be people individually who are not digitally connected, but as a group there’s an opportunity to reach out to them.”

If SF72 catches on, San Francisco is ready to lend its social networking expertise to other cities.

This story, "How San Francisco is using social networks to get ready for The Big One" was originally published by TechHive.

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