I recently interviewed UCLA graduate student Sara Cohen about an important project she has initiated: establishing an official system whereby UCLA will use a special pre-established MySpace page in the event of an emergency to communicate with students, faculty, community, and parents.
As the father of a student at Virginia Tech the topic of emergency school communications is of interest to me. It was while researching my white paper School Communications & Emergency Response: What are the Implications for Social Media? that I learned of Sara’s similar interests. We’ve been corresponding ever since. Her project is now to the point where she can talk about the details.
The background: Sara is from New Orleans. Her interest in using social networking systems as emergency communications systems arose when she found herself using tools like Facebook and MySpace to communicate with her friends from New Orleans following Katrina. When she moved to Los Angeles and later became a graduate student at UCLA (she’s studying for an MPP degree in UCLA’s Public Policy program) she did some more research into social networking.
Last July, she proposed as her thesis project that UCLA use MySpace as an “official” way to communicate with students during a crisis. Her adviser and the school were enthusiastic about the project, as was MySpace.
I asked her, “Why MySpace?” She answered, “It’s because the page is openly accessible on the web. UCLA already has an opt-in emergency email “broadcast” system, but we wanted something that would be publicly viewable to all, especially parents, when we turned it on. MySpace provides that feature.”
While initial interest in the project was enthusiastic, the details are taking longer to work out. The experimental MySpace page right now is a private page. The plan is to eventually make it public and then to use it for information distribution in the event of an emergency.
I asked her what features would be available, for example, would students have the ability to post “I’m OK” messages? “Not initially,” she says. “That’s one of the features that is taking a lot of time to work through the school’s bureaucracy. There are some legal concerns about school liability and the plan is to make the page, initially at least, a one-way system for making official information available to the public — and parents.”
She says UCLA will be taking advantage of MySpace’s substantial server and internet resources to ensure availability of emergence information in order to overcome the possibility that the school’s own web sites might become overloaded in a crisis.
In the future, Sara says, other UC campuses may participate; meetings were held recently where enthusiastic support was shown by representatives of the system’s other campuses.