Researchers Study Waldo Canyon Fire Twitter Activity

Post by: Kim Stephens

U.S. Air Force Academy Waldo Canyon Fire

U.S. Air Force Academy Waldo Canyon Fire (Photo credit: Official U.S. Air Force)

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the University of California-Irvin are currently participating in a project titled “Project Heroic”  (funded by the National Science Foundation). The overarching objective is “to better understand the dynamics of informal online communication in response to extreme events.”

As part of this project, the team turned their attention to analyzing Tweets surrounding the recent Waldo Canyon Fire, which started June 23, 2012. This fire was a significant event–the introduction to the research report summarizes the stats:

Over 32,000 residents from Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs and Woodland Park, as well as several small mountain communities along Highway 24, were forced to evacuate… More than 346 homes were destroyed… U.S. Highway 24 was closed in both directions for much of the event. The Waldo Canyon Fire is the most expensive fire in Colorado State history with insurance claims totaling more than US$352.6 million dollars, according to The Gazette.

This significance was reflected in the amount of Twitter “buzz” surrounding the event as well. The research team collected over 100,000 messages that used the hashtag #Waldocanyonfire from more than 25,000 unique Twitter users. (I find it interesting that they only analyzed Twitter data, however, the ability to easily quantify and sort the information makes the platform desirable for researchers.)

They examined the data based on several factors: time of day Tweets were posted, content, who was posting (citizens or government organizations connected to the response effort) and who was following those accounts. Specifically they asked: Did these accounts have an increase in followers, and if so, what Tweeting behavior led to the greatest increase? (Not a surprise, they found that the more information an organization provides, the more people follow them.)  In terms of content, the Wordall above was used as a graphical representation of the types of information relayed by government accounts. As can be seen “evacuation” was the most often mentioned.

One thing I  found really interesting were the results of the Retweet analysis. They assumed that government information would be repeated, especially during an emergency, however, they found “this increase is largest for [local] organizations.” An aphorism often stated by the emergency management community is “All disasters are local”–Twitter is proving that statement to be more than a common saying. This also means, to me, that local organizations should learn how to use these tools–but that’s another post.

Lesson Learned

Based on their findings they drew some conclusions–which, by the way, are some of the same conclusions we in the SMEM community have noticed with only anecdotal evidence. It is quite nice to have hard numbers to back up our own observations. They found:

  • When an event occurs local organization gain large numbers of followers.
  • Establishing a social media strategy pre-event is important. Organizations should not judge attention demand for social media during non-event periods.
  • Content generation on Twitter varies in a predictable way based on the time of day. Interpreting changes in attention needs to take this diurnal cycle into account.
  • Original content tends to be produced by local organizations, while retweeted content tends to come from non-locals.
  • Low rates of directed messaging indicate a trend to use Twitter as a broadcast channel more than a conversational channel.
  • Inclusion of a URLs may show that these organizations recognize the limitations of information shared via Twitter, perhaps due to the character lengths, requiring links out to additional information.
  • Hashtag use indicates these organizations are developing a sophistication in how to participate effectively during a disaster event.

One response to “Researchers Study Waldo Canyon Fire Twitter Activity

  1. Pingback: Researchers Study Waldo Canyon Fire Twitter Activity | #UASI

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