Major General Patrick Sanders, assistant chief of the UK defence staff, who is currently coordinating the armed forces’ response to the UK floods has described the damage as an “almost unparalleled natural disaster”.
I listened to the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning (a treat that I rarely enjoy now that I cycle to work – and only heard it today because I took my brother-in-law to the airport), and the presenters were speaking to various spokesmen from train companies and utilities around the country.
I’ve recently been speaking to a number of not-for-profit organisations about their digital platforms. Digital is key to these organisations because it provides a direct-to-consumer communication channel (although they each have different terms for consumers) which is far cheaper than previous methods. The commercial sector which recognised this advantage a few years ago.
One specific question which keeps being raised it how to deal with emergencies announcements.
Commercials organisations can often afford robust platforms and fault tolerance because the increased digital traffic from mobile apps and websites usually translates into extra revenue or improved customer service.
However, if you are a school and want to let parents know whether the school is open today or not because of flooding, snow or other natural problems, it’s unlikely the school will be compensated for the added digital traffic. Many UK schools offer a text messaging service to parents to let them know if the school is open or not, but still they receive huge web traffic from concerned parents.
Additional web traffic can often cause website issues. There are a number of methods to ease this high web traffic, most of which are free to use.
Social media to the rescue
One way to deal with the traffic is to tell parents (or your other ‘consumers’) to check your Twitter feed. Point them at the Twitter page (for example, twitter.com/[name]) and try to put all breaking news on Twitter first. Consumers won’t rely on Twitter as a main communication channel if they have to register, or if you update Twitter too slowly.
There are other social networks available, such as Tumblr or WordPress.com (the hosted version of WordPress). These platforms are stable and can handle significant amounts of traffic; and not-for-profit organisations can often benefit from no bandwidth charges. Check their advertising policies, which can change regularly – you may feel advertising on your emergency announcements’ website is inappropriate.
Using Facebook for emergency announcements raises several other questions. You can incorporate emergency announcements on Facebook, however in my experience other users will comment on those announcements. Often these comments can confuse the original announcements, so unless your organisation has staff to respond to these comments, my view is to use a different network.
Often, your Facebook page will be private, such as a children’s charity, so that all viewers must be authorised to join your group. This means that you are excluding non-Facebook members from seeing the emergency announcements.
As part of your emergency planning, you should already have a notifications process.
Investigate the options above, choose a preferred channel, and start promoting that channel (or web/ mobile address). Let your audience know that in an emergency, such as wind, rain or snowfall, everyone should check a specific web address for the latest updates.
Advertise this channel all year round.
When the emergency does occur, consider redirecting all web visitors to the emergency channel – so that when a web visitor goes to your homepage, they are instantly redirected to your Twitter page. Plan this process in advance, and have a few drills or practices throughout the year.
Make sure all relevant emergency staff have access to update the emergency channel (e.g. Twitter login details). Ensure you regularly change the password (and keep it suitably complex). The email account you use for the social network should be generic, if a specific person leaves the organisation and remaining staff are unable to receive updates or access forgotten passwords.
Keeping the website more robust
If the concept of using a third-party website is undesirable, there are other methods available to ‘strengthen’ the existing website:
Speak to your web hosting company about more powerful servers during emergency periods. This may have licensing implications which you will need to check. There are some hosting facilities which allow you to increase your servers for a short period.
Load testing. You can simulate a high number of web visitors coming to your site in a short period of time to see how your site performs. You may find that when your website is down, your email is unavailable too. It’s better to know through a simulation than when the emergency occurs. You may wish to move your email from your web server.
Content Delivery Networks. These networks shield a website from large amounts of traffic through a variety of (usually patented) technical methods. Most high traffic commercial websites use a Content Delivery Network to help ‘protect’ their digital platform from traffic and security intrusions.
Improving website performance. It is possible to have a website that has been poorly coded. Or you may have too many widgets on your website pages which puts the web server under too much pressure for every visitor. Cleaning up the website page can ease the pressure on the servers – often significantly.
If you have any further questions or comments about emergency planning, please contact me via the feedback form on this website, or use the comments below and I will try to help.
If you have any other ideas to share, please use the comments below.