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06.24.13 - Social Media Improves Disaster Communications


Update: Twitter has matured, its 140 characters morphing from trivial musings into a go-to source for updated emergency info and messaging during disaster events.

For the second consecutive year, wildfire rages through Colorado, leaving devastation in its wake. Sadly, tragedies like these are all too common.  With more people than ever populating high-risk locations, natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and wildfires are increasingly costly and dangerous. Sharing the headlines are spree killings, nuclear reactor meltdowns, political conflict and terrorist attacks.

Technology cannot prevent these disasters or their devastating results but it is playing a significant – and growing – role in managing emergency communications. At the first sign of trouble, millions of people turn to social media for the latest updates as well as to communicate with loved ones.

The widespread adoption of mobile devices, along with the proliferation of social media technologies, has shifted the landscape of emergency communications. Social media is more adept than mainstream media at relaying and receiving time- and safety-critical information, allowing users to reach more contacts over greater distances in less time than ever before. And because tweeting uses less bandwidth than a voice call, reaching out via sites like Twitter after an emergency can help keep phone lines from crashing.

From broadcasting escape routes and safety updates to summoning help and locating survivors, social media is a force for good during disaster.

Topping the popular destinations for emergency information is Twitter, the microblogging site that limits posts to 140 characters.

Understanding how Twitter is used during disaster can help inform policies and procedures that could render it even more valuable during these events. Researchers from the UC Irvine’s Networks, Computation and Social Dynamics lab in the Calit2 Building have been studying the site in great detail for more than three years. They are collecting and analyzing data from many recent disaster events including: last year’s Hurricane Sandy and the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado; and this year’s Nemo nor'easter in the Atlantic Northeast and the Boston Marathon terrorist attack.

The National Science Foundation-funded project is called HEROIC (Hazards, Emergency Response, and Online Information Communication). Principal investigators are Carter Butts, UCI sociology professor, and Jeannette Sutton, a senior research scientist at the Trauma Health and Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Butts, Sutton and team have focused recent data analysis on last year’s Colorado wildfire and the Boston bombings.

Through data collection and modeling of message dynamics, they seek to understand the relationship between hazard events, informal communication and emergency response.

According to Butts, online sites like Twitter are the perfect venue for studying information exchange because they offer enormous precision. “We can understand how communication works in disasters at a scale we couldn’t before,” he says, “both in terms of people talking to the public and the public talking [to each other].”

Researchers collect and study Twitter messaging in real time. They sample information on an ongoing basis before a disaster occurs so after an event, they see changes as they happen. In essence, they watch and wait. “We don’t know where the next event will occur but when it does happen, we’re already there,” Butts says.

This technique allows precise comparisons of pre-event and post-event behaviors. “That’s really important because in the online world, stuff is gone very fast and in many cases you can’t go back and look at history accurately.”

Adds Sutton, who says their team is one of the only groups in the country doing this type of research: “We’re doing something of value to the practitioner community. We’re actually providing them with some solid results of how [their Twitter accounts] are working and what they might do differently. Our research is one of the few places they can go to help inform more of their planning and preparation activities.”

Disaster instantly shines a spotlight on local organizations. In the week following the Boston bombings, researchers discovered, the Boston Police Department’s Twitter followers increased by 500 percent, while the city’s public information officer saw a 2000 percent increase in followers.

This quick increase in public attention is both a risk and an opportunity, says Butts. Public organizations must be aware that the public is watching them and use the opportunity to develop relationships, demonstrate their value and provide educational information that could be useful in future disaster events.

It appears that the Boston P.D. did just that. They entered the Twitter conversation immediately after the bombs exploded, updating information as events occurred. Perhaps more importantly, they listened, using tweets to correct misinformation spread by other sources.

Butts and team believe that kind of response can only be achieved through advance planning. “This is really an important emerging communication channel for rapid notification and dissemination of information,” he says. “But that means you have to have your plan in place because you don’t have time to come up with it on the fly. You need to know what to do with that public attention because it’s going to matter.”

Researchers did note that in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, unlike other recent events, official organizations did not settle on a uniform hashtag for their communications. A hashtag is a word or phrase, denoted by the # symbol, which groups messages on Twitter so they can be located more easily.

Using one hashtag to characterize a disaster event allows Twitter users to find all pertinent information as quickly as possible. “It could mean life or death for some people,” says Sutton. “That’s really what it comes down to. So categorizing it in a way that’s accurate is really important. While we may not be able to tell people exactly how to do it, we can say they should put some attention toward it.”

The research team disperses its findings through online reports, blogs, via the Twitter hashtag (#SMEM) and by attending national and international emergency management conferences and workshops.

Sutton has met with public information officers in Colorado Springs to discuss the team’s research findings. “They’re very curious to know how they can improve and how they can get ahead of the next event,” she says.

Because each person who tweets is a link in the communication chain, researchers hope their findings will help inform the general public, too. “When you send information to your friends, when you tweet something or re-tweet something, you are participating in this vast network of people exchanging information,” Butts explains. “I think people are learning what they should pay attention to and that informs how people are alerted. … The public and the response community are educating each other as they go through this process. There is potential for impact at many levels.”

-- Anna Lynn Spitzer