Thursday, August 2, 2018

Communicating about Agung, how did that even happen?

At the end of 2017 I dropped everything in my life to communicate the Agung crisis online. Just me, my two cats, and my laptop at the kitchen table. All night, every night, for just over three months.

I am going over the notes that I took during the Agung crisis in order to prepare a talk that I will be giving at the Cities on Volcanoes conference next month. From the beginning, it was very clear to me that this was something that we, as a global volcanology community, need to learn from. During the crisis I took a lot of notes. I took screenshots of thank you messages (showing what was helpful), critics, hard questions, points of confusion, evolution of the eruption, and much more. This was all with the goal to one day learn from this experience so that the next time this happens, we will be better prepared (turns out it is already happening with the Kilauea eruption and USGS is doing a great job!). 

So, what the heck happened?

On 21 September, 2017, I was living in Pittsburgh trying to find a job so that I could stay in the country. I had just completed my volcanology PhD, and had been to a conference in Portland. I had no idea what I was going to do. I was watching meteorologists communicate on Twitter about the 2017 hurricanes and I was both impressed and concerned. Impressed at how well they were doing, and concerned that volcanology would have a similar situation and we would not be prepared for it. The situation I worried about was a volcanic crisis (increased unrest in a populated area) with intense international interest in the age of social media and 24-7 online media. This is something I had spent quite a lot of time thinking about and I had started to talk to other volcanologists about it. I did not, however, have any idea that Agung was about to happen. There is no way I could have.

On 22 September this was about to change. On the 20th I posted my first tweet about Agung. I did not think much of it. On the 21st I tweeted about Agung another two times. Just like I had many times with many other volcanoes since joining Twitter in 2013. On the 22nd I tweeted that the Alert Level had increased to IV out of IV This caught my attention. I knew this was potentially bad news for the locals, but I didn’t put a lot of thought into it beyond that. 

Note the 17 retweets. This was pretty normal attention for a tweet back then.

A little before midnight that night I received a Facebook message from a Kiwi friend in Bali:

Is the Bali volcano going to explode?

I'm in Bali now


I'd rather rely on a better source than random mates/article on FB

I'm weird like that

He just told me: The volcano is imminent alert of eruption. Flights are getting canceled

I had not seen an alert for an imminent eruption... I started looking for more information. I could easily find fear-mongering articles that spelled out imminent doom, but nothing to back that up. I realized that in a potentially dangerous situation people could not find the right information. I was very, very concerned by this. I cared. A lot.

Agung had produced a deadly eruption a few decades earlier and no one knew what it was about to do (hindsight is great). People needed information. People in Bali needed information and people about to travel to Bali needed information. The media needed information. The world needed information. As experts, we have the information they need. As far as activity specifics go, that is all up to the official agency (CVGHM and BNPB in this case), but we can direct people to potentially life-saving information. What on Earth is a pyroclastic flow? A lahar? What is volcanic ash? What do people do to stay safe? Who should they be listening to? What do the words in the official warnings mean? As a trained volcanologist sitting there with this information, I felt a responsibility to share it. Even to my small Twitter following at the time.

There were two large issues with this situation: 1) Unless you are Indonesian, chances are you don’t know where to get the official information or what websites to trust (USGS, GNS, IVHHN); 2) for the local websites, we can use online translation services to translate the information into English but there were some key words that did not translate correctly, changing the meaning of the message.
The Magma Indonesia website, and important source of official information.

Using Google translate (I do not speak Indonesian) and volcanology experience (not specifically on Agung), I started tweeting the official information in English, with the links to the original information. No big deal, right? Wrong. Big deal. Very big deal.

People were searching online for information. This was a big deal in terms of global media. A volcano that had killed over 1,100 people in 1963-1964 waking up in a tourism hotspot. Very. Big. Deal.

People found my little volcano-based Twitter account. The questions started flooding in, then the media requests. I am still in awe of how polite, kind, and patient everyone on Twitter was through this entire event. Thank you.

Those next few weeks are now a blur, the main things that happened were: my waking hours switched from day to night (as any shift worker can tell you, this feels awful); I reached out to a bunch of specialists (volcanologists, social scientists, emergency mangers, science communicators) around the world to make sure I was doing everything right (in the first month this list grew to 60, then I lost count); I started working with media to explain basic volcano terms, history, and processes so that reports were accurate; I wrote a blog post giving links to official information so that people could actually find it; I made it very clear that I was not an official and I was not interpreting the data in any way – just passing on the official word and general volcano information; I assembled an online support group of mostly volcanologists different time zones; I worked with several people in Bali who were working to help disseminate the right information (like this) to locals.
When I started getting emails telling me about this article, that was a big 'wait, what is happening??' moment. I was so focused on the volcano that I completely missed the growing interest in who I was.

Every waking moment I was on high alert, double checking everything I said and trying to make sure I stuck very carefully to my self-made rules that I had written out in front of me.

I was very well supported behind the scenes and I frequently asked experts to check what I was doing. Input from volcanologists around the world was crucial. There was one instance where the feedback was not so great. People who I highly respect got the idea that I was putting my own interpretations of the monitoring data out there – a very big no no and I knew this. Doing that can undermine the hard-working official volcanologists who I was working so hard to direct people towards. I was devastated. If I am honest, I still haven’t fully recovered from it. After seeking a lot of reassurance that the claims were unfounded I pushed forward and keep doing what I could to help. Sometimes in life we are given a turning point where we can take the easier path or do what we know needs to be done to help others. This was that moment.

So, this is how this all started. I saw that people needed help to get important information and I dove in without knowing where it would lead. Agung erupted about two months into this crisis but damage to the tourism industry had already been done by fabricated and fear-mongering tabloid headlines. It was not a huge eruption but as we know in volcanology, it is not only the eruption itself that does the damage. Today Agung still sits on Alert Level 3 out of 4. It is still active. The authorities are still working very hard to monitor the situation and to keep people informed and safe.

I will be giving a talk “#AgungErupts: How Twitter and 24-hour media are changing the roles of volcanologists” in a month to discuss this event with the broader community. The way people search for information during an event has changed. We need to evolve with it.

Abstract for my upcoming Cities on Volcanoes talk.

Thank you to everyone around who helped me through this. Thank you to my dedicated online support team. Thank you to everyone who shared the right information (there are also plenty of other scientists online!). Thank you to everyone in media who I worked with, you were all fantastic. Thank you, most of all, to the local volcanologists and authorities who did, and continue to do, all the real work.

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