Online social networking sites could solve many problems plaguing information dissemination and communications when disaster strikes, according to a US report.

In the wake of natural disasters such as the Haiti earthquake and terrorist activity, online services became increasingly prominent as useful tools to get the news out faster than traditional media, to provide timely information sources, etc.

But, are social networking tools such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and ad hoc sites set up in the wake of a major event really useful tools or are they simply riding a publicity wave?

According to Connie White of the Institute for Emergency Preparedness at Jacksonville State University in Alabama and colleagues there and at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, online social networks permit the establishment of global relationships that are domain related or can be based on some need shared by the participants.

They have investigated whether or not the social network paradigm can be used to enable individuals and organisations to collaborate in mutually beneficial ways, in all stages of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

There are already dozens of groups on two of the most popular social networking sites, Facebook and LinkedIn, that are allowing individuals involved in various aspects of emergency awareness and preparedness to connect, discuss, and share knowledge in specific fields, said a university release.

For instance, an emergency online network would need to be able to share documents and digital resources, allow members to communicate efficiently, provide a way to find specific experts in the field and beyond, share photos and video for status reports and locating missing persons, as well as allow the news media to be kept informed.