Yukonomist: Disasters and the digital citizen


Social media is transforming not just how we engage politically or waste our time online, but also how we respond to emergencies.

Back in 1897, when authorities in Dawson City feared a winter of starvation was coming, North West Mounted Police Inspector Constantine could only communicate by word of mouth or by posting notices saying things like “It is almost beyond a possibility that any more food will come into this district. For those who have not laid in a winter’s supply to remain here longer is to court death from starvation, or at least a certainty of sickness from scurvy and other troubles.”

During the 2021 floods, Yukon governments, community groups and individual citizens communicate via a dizzying number of online platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, email chains, group texts and more. Furthermore, you can check the water levels almost up to the minute in Tagish Lake or Marsh Lake by visiting the webpages of Environment Canada’s local water sensors.

Word of Constantine’s starvation notice did spread rapidly. You might even say it went viral by the standards of the time. One Dawson storekeeper with little food on his shelves went around Dawson shouting at people to “Flee for your lives!” and “Do you expect to catch grayling all winter?”

But even a hysterical grocery merchant can’t match the viral spread of today’s online platforms.

One remarkable aspect of this trend is how citizens are increasingly turning to non-government information sources in times of crisis.

In Toronto, for example, huge numbers used the citizen-created Vaccine Hunters Twitter feed or website to find a vaccination appointment. Government agencies struggled to create an online tool so citizens could book an appointment. Torontonians were following Twitter, then bundling the family into the car to zip to some location where Vaccine Hunters showed openings.

Inspector Constantine would have been amazed that a new volunteer group like the people behind Vaccine Hunters could set up a tool used by millions faster than far better funded government health agencies. It would be as if some miners on Bonanza Creek set up sourdough1897.yt to match miners with surplus bacon and sacks of flour to trade with others who had empty caches.

Nor is the flooding the first time this has happened in the Yukon. If you want to go backcountry skiing around White Pass, the best source for recent snow conditions and avalanche reports is the Avalanche Canada app. It contains nearly real-time reports from Avalanche Yukon members travelling in the area, as well as links to forecasts and government weather stations.

Given how much time Constantine and his men spent on dog sleds patrolling areas with no maps or weather forecast, he also would be amazed to see a Yukoner in downtown Whitehorse scrolling through a report about the snow conditions in Fraser Chutes from only a few hours earlier, complete with photos and comments from the citizen reporter.

With disasters from floods in Germany to wildfires in California, Silicon Valley has noticed the opportunity too. More than a few tech industry executives noticed how even official California government firecrews were using social media to communicate and find up to date information. Multiple startups are experimenting with new approaches, trying to be more nimble and user-friendly than government apps and websites.

For example, a startup called Perimeter, inspired by the 2018 wildfires in the Bay area, has tapped investors to start building a platform that hopes to bridge the gap between citizens and government agencies. Citizens can post the latest geo-tagged info, such as a new fire blocking a road, but public-safety agencies are also plugged in. This helps control misinformation and allow emergency planners to head off citizen stampedes in the wrong direction, while also giving them a platform to cut through the noise on Twitter and post maps and instructions directly relevant to people in the area.

These platforms create big opportunities for government agencies, but also big challenges. They can reach people who don’t visit government Facebook pages or listen to radio announcements. They can also include maps, photos or other helpful information. But the internet runs 24×7, with citizens posting around the clock, so the volume and timing of information flows is unmanageable with small government communications teams working weekdays 9 to 5.

Here in the Yukon, government can send you a text via the Alert Ready system. The territorial government has a webpage with all the ways you can get emergency information, from the webpage on flood risks to following Yukon Protective Services on Facebook or Twitter. The City of Whitehorse has a Whitehorse Alert program you can register for.

The City of Whitehorse is creatively tapping into private-sector emergency solutions. Instead of using a Canadian government locational system, they are using What3Words. This was invented by a British concert organizer who struggled to find a way to text accurate directions to bands, roadies and caterers for music events, and is now used by companies ranging from Mercedes Benz to the Mongolian post office. The app divides the whole world into squares three metres square and assigns each a unique three-word code. Just enter scowls.strapped.speeches to find Whitehorse City Hall, for example.

Of course, none of this helps much if you don’t have a smartphone or are out of range of our limited cellular network. But the opportunity is big. It will be exciting to watch other groups emulate Avalanche Yukon and develop innovative new services that make life in the Yukon far safer than Inspector Constantine ever could have imagined.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.