Using Social Media to Gain Situational Awareness — It’s Time To Question Assumptions

Post by: Kim Stephens

Many have assumed that after a large-scale disaster event all communications would be silenced in the impacted areas.  Recent experience, however, has proved this assumption incorrect — first with Haiti (Jan 2010) and then in recent months in  Australia. In both cases, the cell towers proved to be more resilient than assumed.  Because social media platforms can be accessed on hand-held communication devices, survivors and public safety organizations have turned to these platforms as a way to keep the information flowing during and after a disaster.

Citizens in impacted areas don’t just receive information, but increasingly, they send out bits of data about what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling through these platforms. These data, if aggregated, can contribute to overall situational awareness.  We are really beginning to understand Brian Humphrey of LAFD’s phrase “every citizen is a sensor”, a take on the phrase every soldier is a sensor. But what now? Citizens, obviously, do not pass the information up through chains of command, nor do usually pass that information in any structured way. How do we filter, verify, aggregate and make sense of ALL THAT DATA?  As crisis mapper and PhD candidate Kate Starbird said in a recent interview: “Should it be the only source of information? Absolutely not. But if it’s there, why not use the information?” Also see this video of Craig Fugate, Director FEMA, talk about how important this is.

This is a really big topic so I have just tackled a small part of the issue in this post. I also have tried to include as many links as possible to articles that explore the topic in much greater depth. The point here is to try to aggregate some of these issues and questions for use in our discussion on the SMEMchat hashtag, which is scheduled to take place Friday, Feb. 3 at 1230. If you have other questions you’d like brought up, please post them to twitter on #SMEM or at the bottom of this post.

QUESTION #1: How do we gather  information from social media platforms?

(a.) One way to gather data: ask for it. The US Army Handbook on Social Media suggests that during an emergency “Organizations should encourage people on the scene to send information.” They go on to state that “No matter how information is submitted, the command site should promote this content when appropriate.”

(b.) Be a magnet. What I think we are seeing in Australia, is that the Queensland Police Service social media presence has created an avenue for people to provide information that can be more easily monitored by response personnel. They have done this both with their twitter account, by establishing and using hashtags that were widely adopted during the flood and the current cyclone, and by creating a robust facebook page. Just by reading through the comments on the QPS site, you get a sense of how people can provide situational awareness information directly to you. One person states: “Just gotten in contact with family in Kewarra and they have power, not to sure of damage but it wasn’t as bad as we first thought…”

One concern I’ve heard voiced from response organizations is privacy. However, if people are volunteering their information to your open and public site, they most likely understand it is not a private conversation. Another concern I’ve heard came from the QPS media team themselves, there is a LOT of information to sort through. This brings up the question:

Can/should emergency operation centers use volunteers to help sort through the data pouring in through their own social media sites?

(c.) Have trusted sources: Other emergency managers, Cheryl Bledsoe in particular, have noted the importance of  having a presence before an event, which helps create real trust with people online. During an event you can turn to these “trusted agents” as sources of information. (Hey @greatguy What are you seeing around the lake?).

Again, Jeff Phillips, aka @LosRanchosEM, provides a great example of this. Here in this screen shot of his twitter feed, you can see that he is retweeting information supplied by others. When asked about his practices in RTing Jeff states: “I do my best to verify “trust” before RT – not the same as saying only “official” sources. Sometimes I RT with a question mark.” I asked him if he includes that information in his official situational report, and he indicated that he does include verified information in his county’s sitrep.

QUESTION #2:  Can We Ask for the data, but in a structured format? Even in Australia, however, we have seen that being a magnet for information is really not enough. There is just too much information for response organizations to make sense of it all in a timely manner. Some of the posts on the QPS facebook page received over 1000 comments. There were thousands of tweets during and after the cyclone with the tag #TCYasi. Trying to sort through and make sense of all of that potential data is a real problem. (I say potential because a lot of comments are merely “thanks for the good work!”.)

What smart phone applications and other formats have been developed to help citizens report data in structured format?

(a.) For smaller-scale events, an example of an application that would make it easier for the public to send information in a more structured format is the application “See Click Fix” which is promoted for use in identifying non-emergency issues in neighborhoods. (Thanks to @UrbanAreaAlicia for pointing this out). As stated on their webpage, this application “allows anyone to report and track non-emergency issues anywhere in the world via the internet.” As the “click” implies, people are encouraged to send in photos of the problems.  If you are reminded of Ushahidi, I’ll get to that in a moment. But applications like this one might be worth exploring for use after a disaster, particularly for local government with limited resources.

(b.) The public can also be educated about how to structure information shared through social media platforms so that it can be integrated with other data feeds and placed on visualization platforms. One example of this is the National Weather Service’s new experiment called “Twitter Storm Reports” In their flyer they state: “You can now submit your significant weather observations to the NWS via twitter.” The two page flyer gives very specific information on how-to structure tweets, including a full description of how they should be written with or without geo-tagging.  One of the example tweets demonstrates the importance of including the person’s location if they do not have geo-tagging. “#wxreport WW 378 W. 156th Rd. Anthony, KS WW Wind Gusts estimated at 60 mph”.

(c.) This reminded me of the “Tweak the tweet”, an ongoing effort on the part of aforementioned Kate Starbird, a PhD student at the University of Colorado, to educate the public about how to better format tweets in order to”leverage twitter as a semi-formal communications channel”. The campaign also informs users on how to format tweets so that computers can aid in processing the information.

“This processing includes extracting location information, creating incident reports from tweets, and sorting these reports into different types of categories. The processed tweets can then be displayed on public web-pages in a variety of formats that allows users to see where different types of information has been reported.”

This is a very impressive endeavor that is starting to yield some great results. See this 3 page description here.

Correction: In my attempt to be brief it seems I left out some important information. I received an email from Jeannie A. Stamberger, Ph.D., Adjunct Faculty,Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley, that sheds some additional light on how and why the tweak-the-tweet was created. Dr. Stamberger states:

I wanted to let you know that I co-created Tweak the Tweet with Kate Starbird at the Random Hacks of Kindness in November 2009; we have published on creating the idea together. At Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley Disaster Mangement Initiative we continue to work on Twitter use in disasters exploring further questions related to gathering accurate credible information from the crowd including just-in-time credibility building, use of social media in disaster drills which teach the public how to use information resources during a disaster, and we will be testing methods in May using Tweak the Tweet in amateur radio; amateur radio is the backbone of communication in disasters, yet the information is missing from the digital feeds currently being processed by the crowd to aid disaster management.

We are also working with local authorities to develop optimal “canned” alert messages to familiarize them with the in’s and out’s of how to get your message across. Others at CMU are working on identifying location of Tweets from colloquial language in content (see January publications) and comprehensive analysis of characteristics associated with re-Tweeting likelihood.

(d.) And Ushahidi (if you’ve never heard of Ushahidi watch this video) has an iPhone app as well. From the iTunes preview page: “Ushahidi is an open source platform for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories.  The iPhone and iPad app synchronizes with any Ushahidi deployment allowing viewing and creation of incident reports on the go.”

The app supports loading of multiple deployments at one time, quick filtering through incident reports, exploring incident locations on the map, viewing incident photos, news article, media as well as sharing incident reports via email, sms or Twitter. Once the data has been downloaded, the app can function without an internet connection, allowing accurate collection of data utilizing the device’s camera and gps capabilities.

QUESTION #3: Can We Combine social media with geo-spatial mapping?

The description of Ushahidi’s app dovetails perfectly with the question of integrating social media with geo-spatial mapping. Again this example comes from the resent back-to-back crises in Australia. Although geo-spatial mapping with crowdsourced data on the Ushahidi platform  became very well known after its well-publicized use in Haiti, I think it showed even more promise in the application’s deployment in Australia when it was combined with the power of the GIS mapping giant, ESRI.  The application allowed for “trend analysis” and, based on reports from the field, was used by responders “to create releveance and context from social media reporting.”  See this article by Alex Howard, of O’Reilly Radar. Alex continues:

The Australian flooding web app includes the ability to toggle layers from OpenStreetMap, satellite imagery, topography, and filter by time or report type. By adding structured social data, the web app provides geospatial information system (GIS) operators with valuable situational awareness that goes beyond standard reporting, including the locations of property damage, roads affected, hazards, evacuations and power outages.

Here is a screen shot of ESRI’s application during Cyclone Yasi.

QUESTION #4How do we create feedback loops so that responders know when information coming from social media platforms has been acted upon? See the article listed below “From Haiti to-Helmand” for a detailed discussion of this point. Lin Well’s states that feedback is essential to not only know what has been acted upon, but to identify what has not.

There is a lot to discuss. I’m anxious to participate in the online chat with the emergency management community on this topic. I will report back with everyone’s thoughts.

Some Great Sources:

Your comments and suggestions are invited.

5 responses to “Using Social Media to Gain Situational Awareness — It’s Time To Question Assumptions

  1. Hi Kim

    That’s a really great post.

    The really sticky issues seem to me to be:
    – managing the information volume
    – how much of this would have to be done in public

    The working in public aspects may be cultural. The British government is much less relaxed than the US government about sharing information in public (though we are catching up).

    I agree with you that we have to look at mobilising volunteers to help process some of this data. Of course the volunteers don’t have to be geographically close to the emergency. Or even in the same country. In fact mobilising volunteers globally could help keep eyes open round the clock. A Crisis Camp for people who can’t code?

    Or am I getting carried away?

  2. Ben,
    Thanks so much for the comment.
    Actually, you are not getting carried away, because all of this post is essentially happening as we speak. I agree that the stickiest issue is information volume, and that’s exactly why computer processing has to be part of the equation.
    This post was difficult to write because I was trying to be brief in the context of writing in the blog format. In reality, the topic could be used for a dissertation!

  3. Great post which puts some useful context around the whole area of disaster response and social media. There is a tendency in some quarters to romanticise the whole thing which stems form enthusiasm for the technology rather than understanding the important issues illustrated here.

    It’s time to lose the social media tag I think and talk about people, networks, information and mobile in their own right, which is just what this piece does. Having begun to prove itself in the harshest of environments this smart use of social will begin to prove itself all over again in the more mundane world of cities and rural areas to create smart networks to manage supply and demand which must replace the “supply everything in case somebody wants it” mentality with “supply what I can’t supply myself and everybody will benefit” mind set.

  4. Pnache,
    Thanks for the comment and compliment. I also think by making information more public, people and businesses will become empowered to help themselves and each other.

  5. Pingback: Using Social Media to Gain Situational Awareness — It’s Time To Question Assumptions | Social media in crisis management | Scoop.it

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