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Hawaii Tracker admins reflect on role of social media group during eruption

When Ryan Finlay started the Hawaii Tracker group on Facebook in 2014, he had one goal in mind — to help Pahoa residents stay connected as a lava flow from Pu‘u ‘O‘o threatened their town.

“It was a just a vision to create a place for people to go, and to connect with each other,” said Finlay, who was relocating his family from Oregon to Pahoa at the time of the lava threat.

The group maintained a steady following of a few thousand members after that flow stopped, leaving most of the town untouched, but that all changed in May 2018 when lava erupted out of cracks in Leilani Estates.

Soon, Finlay found himself among those — like Puna resident Ikaika Marzo, who first got word out on social media that the eruption started — on the front lines of documenting the fast-changing disaster as lava gobbled up homes and covered streets.

Lower Puna residents desperate for minute-by-minute updates flocked to the group that now lists more than 50,000 Facebook users, and has been featured by the social media giant in a one-minute video released in February.

“At the beginning of the latest eruption, it was basically real-time news reporting all day long and into the night,” he said.

But it wasn’t just him for long.

Finlay was joined by other lower Puna residents eager to tell their own story and help their neighbors, each putting in countless hours of volunteer time. Several were photographers, while others had backgrounds in computer science or geology.

Together, they were able not just to document where the lava was, but also inform residents how many homes were destroyed and where, faster than government agencies could.

Dane DuPont, who used his computer science background to create maps of destroyed homes, said it helped that they weren’t operating in a bureaucracy.

“There’s a high degree of adaptation to be able to do Tracker,” he said. “We just came out of the voids, out of the black holes.”

His map was later used by Hawaii Emergency Management Agency in its request for federal assistance, DuPont said, though without permission.

With the help of residents in Leilani Estates, and photographers shooting pictures from helicopters, they were able to confirm if a home was still standing or lost.

Finlay said that also gave them the responsibility of giving people bad news.

“We were inundated with people asking if their house is still there,” he said. “We had to break it to a couple people that their house was gone. That was brutal.”

Philip Ong, a volunteer for Hawaii Tracker and Pu‘uhonua o Puna, referred to the group as the “digital hub” for lava evacuees.

Like the “Hub” started by Pu‘uhonua, which provided supplies and a gathering spot for evacuees, the social media group helped keep the community connected, he said.

DuPont agreed. He said he remains impressed by how the community came together during the eruption.

“It’s awe-inspiring to me to see the community carry themselves through,” he said, “online and on the ground.”

Hawaii Tracker’s role got the attention of Facebook, which, in addition to making the video, invited DuPont and Finlay to a Facebook Communities Summit in February.

“I think it’s fair to say Facebook does see Tracker as a model of like the best of what a group could be,” Ong said.

The core group responsible for Hawaii Tracker, which includes about nine people, also have the task of determining the purpose of the group post-eruption.

For now, it remains focused on helping lower Puna residents share their stories, and advocate for issues such as road access to the eruption area.

“I would say going forward it’s however we can use community and harness community to help as much as we can,” said Finlay, who lives back in Oregon.

They also are looking at ways to sustain their efforts financially.

“Ultimately, we can’t just donate our time forever,” Finlay said, adding their biggest challenge is figuring out a model for the future. Sponsorships remain a possibility.

“We want to figure out what’s best for people living in the community,” he said.

Looking back on the last year, Finlay said he is glad the group he started helped empower his neighbors during the disaster.

“People came out of the eruption knowing their neighbors, with so many new friends,” he said. “I experienced that in a massive way. So many people got to know each other over the course of the eruption.

“I’m blessed to be a part of it.”

Hawaii Tracker will be honored again April 18 as it receives an award from the Big Island Press Club. The free event is from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science in Pahoa.

Email Tom Callis at
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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