Our hearts go out to everyone who was injured or affected in the unthinkable attack on the Boston Marathon last week. Each of us here at the Digital Economy Project had friends or loved ones at the Marathon or in Boston. While shocked and horrified by the attack, the events were also an example of just how important it can be to provide communities with digital tools and the skills to effectively use them during a disaster.

While spreading access and proficiency in the use of these tools is key to building resilient communities, these tools are useless unless communities are taught how to properly use them in a way that ensures the credibility of information derived. If not, online tools may become a distraction from relief and recovery efforts rather than integral to these efforts’ success.

Online tools were used effectively to reconnect people separated during the attack.

With knowledge that several friends were watching or running the marathon, I, like thousands others, attempted to confirm that they were safe. In the moments following the blast, phone lines were jammed. Cell phone circuits were overrun and rumors were flying that authorities were shutting down phone service to prevent additional bombs from being remotely detonated. As news of the problem spread on Twitter, best practices for communicating in a disaster began to appear, along with other online tools to help reconnect.

Wired.com urged readers to leave phone lines open to responders. Rather than call, they suggested, instead text or use social media sites, like Facebook, Twitter, or Google Chat to reconnect. Media outlets and tech companies also launched their own specialized tools. The Boston Globe created a site that enabled people to offer up their homes to runners and families stranded after the attack. Google launched a “person finder” and the Red Cross’s Safe and Well tool also sprang into action.

Crowd surfing tools were less effective in aiding the police investigation. The immense power of the crowd, if properly applied, has the power to help an investigation, and following the explosions, police urged anyone with photos or video to share them with authorities. Unfortunately, in times of emergency, there is rarely a system in place for managing the type of organic crowdsourcing that spread across the web after the bombing. False rumors and accusations quickly spread, and innocent people were accused of these heinous attacks by anonymous users on the internet.

In the Digital Economy Project, we are working to find the best way to manage online tools in times of disaster. As we saw with Boston, these can be very useful for organizing volunteers and finding friends, but they can also help spread misinformation. What we are looking to achieve in Vermont, that will hopefully be relevant beyond the state as well, is a number of different systemic options that will demonstrate the effective use of online tools in times of crisis. These tools would be able to take the benefits of the free-flowing online community while neutralizing some of the negative effects such as rumors and false claims that can spread so quickly on the internet. We look forward to showcasing our findings throughout the project.