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Social media tries to help during tornadoes, but was the message being heard?

In the aftermath of a severe tornado, owner Frank Evans stands on the rubble that was the Quik Pawn Shop on April 28, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Alabama looks to have been the hardest hit during these storms. Broadband Internet access and adoption in Alabama is below the national average. And in this case, that meant residents there missing out on a bunch of valuable information. The Weather Channel has a breaking news Twitter feed with up-to-the-second data on where storms were heading and where they were touching down. TV stations were posting radar feeds of weather patterns on UStream. Updates on where to go for help were being passed around online.

The situation pointed out just how valuable the Internet can be in the event of an emergency such as this. But there's a real disparity if people can't get online and access that information. Getting a chance to go online and goof around on YouTube is one thing, but when it comes down to some people having access to life saving information and some people not, that's something else altogether.

We talk to Steve Chiotakis, one of the hosts of our sister program, Marketplace Morning Report. He's in Alabama. Steve tells us about all he was able to learn through social media as events unfolded.

We also speak with Blair Levin. He's with the Aspen Institute now but he was also one of the architects of President Obama's National Broadband Initiative.

And we talk with Lawrence Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information
and Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce. He says there are economic reasons why the South doesn't have higher broadband usage rates and there are also reasons related to there being more rural areas there.

Also in this program, Google's new browser has voice recognition built in. The extinction of the traditional keyboard has been predicted -- falsely -- before, but will this finally make it go the way of the dodo?

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.
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No one can deny the role of social media in providing video, audio and tweets from the ground. It’s a game-changer; there’s no doubt about it. This is especially true when journalists are barred from the scene.

But as someone who has 30 years of experience in talking to the media, and as someone who has lead government public affairs emergency response teams dozens of times, the explosion of social media brings me to one question; how accurate is the information we’re getting?

Long before there was social media, we inserted rumor control teams into every emergency response. I learned that a lot of the “user-generated” reports from average citizens was not only inaccurate, but sometimes dangerously so.

Our community might have had a much higher fatality rate had it not been for the use of Twitter & Facebook during the recent storms. Our NBC Affiliate station kept everyone up to date via these feeds. Cell phones could be charged in vehicles and this is the way many were made aware of warnings. Moreover, it is through the usage of social media that our community has been able to organize relief efforts. These efforts have been highly effective for our community.

Correction on the code:

Text to: 40404

Sorry for the typo.

Interesting article, but it completely misses the fact that broadband net access is NOT necessary to receive social media emergency information on a regular cell phone. Even those cell phones provided by public assistance.

For example twitter feeds are available as text by sending an sms short code text message to "4044" with the text "follow" and the user name such as mine "@TheFireTracker2"

Disaster warning communication is an education/policy issue. Not a technology issue.

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