Social Media are being used in response to Colorado Wildfires

Post by: Kim Stephens

The Colorado wildfires are quickly becoming a lesson in how social media are used during a crises: see the article “Evacuees use social media to keep up on Boulder wildfire disaster developments” in the Denver Post. The blog “All Hazards” is also a good source of information on social media as related to this event. The blog was created by David Wild, an Indiana University Informatics Professor, and includes a great list of categorized hyperlinks to various resources related to the fire.

With regard to citizens’ desire to share and find information, the Denver Post article lists the numerous ways new media are being utilized: [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=wildfire&iid=9653410″ src=”http://view1.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9653410/wildfire-broke-out-the/wildfire-broke-out-the.jpg?size=500&imageId=9653410″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /]

In the Fourmile Canyon fire, people have distributed everything from photos to phone numbers for volunteer organizationsGoogle maps with contributions from dozens of people showing evacuation zones and structure damage, to 140-character Twitter messages offering prayers for victims. The city of Boulder is passing along updates to 900 people on its Facebook page.

The article also cites how people are turning to social media in order to get more local information that official sources aren’t able to provide:

We’re frustrated that there’s so little information [from official sources] about the specific areas and about what’s happening,” Hamilton, a planetary geologist, said from a hotel room in Boulder. “I’ve connected with a few people on Twitter who live in my immediate area whom I didn’t know before. I can say, ‘This is what I know. What do you know? How’s your house?’ It’s definitely been good for that.”

Some public officials, however,  are using social media, sometimes by default. The Blog, Online Social Media recounts that when Boulder Sheriff’s emergency alert system (reverse 911) failed, they turned to Twitter andFacebook to disseminate evacuation information.

To get a sense of what’s happening on Twitter in real-time, an example of tweets from today (9/10) with the hashtag #boulderfire demonstrates how information is being communicated in 140 characters or less: everything from evacuation/reentry information, donations, info regarding pets, to a new online forum for those affected.

  • #boulderfire pls help get this message to those who need it-if you were evacuated we would like to provide you lunch or dinner
  • For help w/pets 2nite call Dispatch 303-441-3333. Pets will be housed either here or transported by officer to@LongmontHumane
  • BoulderChanner1:UPDATE: FOUR MILE CANYON #boulderfire Reverse 911 fails: command asks Twitter let people know to evacuate;
  • They’ll open Boulder Heights Pine Brook Carriage Hills, Lee Hill and Olde Stage #Boulderfire
  • The person behind @boulderfire is organizing help on his website. Please take a look. It’s fantastic. #boulderfire #fourmilefire
  • RT @epiccolorado#src @genuine #info No homes destroyed over night. Fire lines held and residents of 4mile can return home at 9 30% contained.#BoulderFire
  • New forum for people affected by#boulderfire http://www.sparkplace.com/

Project EPIC, based at University of Colorado/ Boulder,  is actively mining those tweets in order to help support “the information needs of the public” during this event. The project was created in 2009 with a grant from NSF and their effort is described on their website :

…is a multi-disciplinary, multi-university, multi-lingual research effort to support the information needs by members of the public during times of mass emergency. In this age of social media, we bring our behavioral and technical knowledge of “computer mediated communication” to the world of crisis studies and emergency response….

In practical terms, for this event, they have created a spreadsheet of all relevant tweets which can be sorted by category (e.g. #need, #structure, #offer, #animal) and have created an interactive map which allows people to visualize the information.  By clicking on the color-coded icons you can see all of the detailed information including: author, time, type, report, exact location, as well as the original tweet.

What lessons can we draw from this crisis:

  1. People value timely, highly localized information, whether it came from a neighbor or an “official” source.
  2. Communications systems, such as reverse 911 can fail, redundancy is necessary but should include new media such as Twitter, Facebook, SMS text, etc. that can be disseminated via cell phones or the internet.
  3. During a crisis when 1000s of tweets are posted daily, volunteers might be needed to aggregate  the information and organize it in an interactive, visual format.
  4. Emergency Management officials need to include social media in their emergency communications plans BEFORE the next emergency and exercise those plans.
  5. Information from the public is useful.

See David Wild’s comment on the my last post: “Verifying information from the crowd“. His last sentence really sums up this newly emerging reality for the emergency management community:

The thing that surprises me is how organized and useful these resources are – we assume they would be full of rumors and misinformation, but actually communities seem to be able to curate and organize on the web quite well.

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