Social-media tools like Twitter and Facebook could soon help the U.S. government respond more effectively to disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says it will expand its use of social media and mobile-device portals to reach people during federal disasters.

FEMA is building mobile applications to help it take advantage of the growing number of smartphone users, and also is working with private companies to improve communication through social media, as well as through two-way devices, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said in a keynote address at a Washington conference. Fugate said the agency has is hiring for a newly created position called "geospatial information officer."

The news is a sign that the federal agency, a division of the U.S. Homeland Security Department that epitomized the government's sluggish response to New Orleans and Gulf Coast victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is embracing technology.

The efforts also reflect the growing power of social-media sites such as Facebook, which has more than 500 million users worldwide. In November, the closely held company's website attracted more than 151 million unique visitors, representing a more than 70% jump from a year earlier and making it the fourth-largest U.S. site behind Google (GOOG), Yahoo(YHOO) and Microsoft (MSFT), according to Web-tracking firm ComScore.


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