Projection screens track social media activity in the operations center at the Red Cross headquartersThe facility, housed here at the Red Cross's headquarters, is equipped with three terminals and several wall-mounted screens designed to aggregate and display the conversations about emergencies that are taking place across Twitter, blogs and a bevy of other social media sites.By charting that activity and displaying it in a variety of visualizations such as heat maps and discussions sorted by community, the Red Cross hopes to use to glean valuable information about victims' needs that is often in short supply in the critical early hours of a natural disaster."During an emergency, information is like gold," said Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the Red Cross.The Red Cross also envisions the curated social media data feeds as a tool to spot trends that could indicate where needs will arise in an emergency zone, and to engage with victims to connect them with food, water, shelter or other needs.Dell Lends a Hand -- and Equipment, Services and CashDell contributed equipment and consulting services to launch the new social media center, and has pledged a cash donation to support the project, continuing a two-decades-long partnership with the relief organization, according to Michael Dell, the company's founder, chairman and CEO.Dell chairman and CEO Michael Dell and American Red Cross president and CEO Gail McGovern at the digital operations center at Red Corss headquarters in Washington, D.C.The Red Cross's new facility draws inspiration from a similar command center Dell set up in its Texas headquarters to monitor online conversations of interest to the company, opening a new channel of market intelligence and real-time engagement with social media users.Dell's social media center, though still in its early stages, serves as something of a model for the Red Cross's new facility. Just as the company uses its social media aggregations to identify customers who need help, the relief organization is planning to tap the same tools to prioritize its own humanitarian efforts, which often involve the judicious allocation of scarce resources."I think we're just at the beginning of this," Dell said. "We're going to learn a whole lot more about how to use these tools, but there's no question this is going to aid the efforts of the American Red Cross, and I think it will be a blueprint for other similar organizations as they work to use technology like social media to enhance their efforts."Along with the new technology, the Red Cross is launching a digital volunteer program through which volunteers will be trained to engage with emergency victims through social media, sometimes providing vital information about where to find shelter or medical attention, and sometimes simply offering emotional support.The Red Cross only formally unveiled the social media operations center on Wednesday, but had put the technology into practice during the recent tornados that swept through the Midwest. Wendy Harman, the Red Cross's director of social strategy, said that Red Cross staffers and volunteers were using social media channels to counsel fearful residents seeking advice for riding out a tornado in their homes, and relayed other critical information about disaster preparation and response from local authorities.The spike in social media activity during the tornados was hardly an anomaly, as McGovern noted that every recent natural disaster or humanitarian emergency that would draw in the Red Cross has lit up the social media sites."In recent years we have seen the growth of social media grow dramatically, particularly in emergencies," she said. "And more and more people are relying on it to get information, to connect with loved ones, to seek help and also to give help, particularly in times of crisis."On a typical day, McGovern said, social media users will post mentions of the Red Cross between 3,000 to 5,000 times a day on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other sites, according to McGovern. But in times of emergency, those posts grow "exponentially," she said.The potential for social media to aid in a disaster response came into sharp focus for the Red Cross amid the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Social media outlets were a primary channel for people to alert the Red Cross to the location of their loved ones who were trapped in the rubble, a barrage of information that, if properly harnessed, could prove invaluable to the efforts of relief workers, McGovern said."That's when we realized we needed to start a conversation with the emergency response organizations and figure out how that community could use social media and tap into the ways people are communicating anyway," she said. "We also saw the need to use social media to engage the public so that they could become a vital participant in disaster response and recovery."Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.Read more about web 2.0 in CIO's Web 2.0 Drilldown.