Category Archives: Crisis Mapping

One County’s Social Media Stats: Hurricane Sandy

Post by: Kim Stephens

Fairfax County, VA’s Office of Public Affairs published their Social Media “Metrics Report” which provides a quantitative assessment of how well their social media presence was received during Hurricane Sandy (October 26-31 specifically). One of the more interesting components is the comparison to their social media numbers during Hurricane Irene, a big event for the Northern Virginia and Washington DC area.

Three items from this report stood out to me:

1. 384,651 Blog views to their “Fairfax CountyEmergency Information Blog.” That number is up from “just” 51,000 views during Hurricane Irene. How did they do it? They simply posted information people needed. For example, I personally linked to one of their blogs posts “What to do if a tree hits your house” on the Facebook page I was helping administer during the storm. One citizen commented: “Thanks for posting this, I was wondering what to do if that happened.” (I’d like to point out that this kind of blog post could be written in advance.)

According to their stats, people found their way to the blog from many different sources,  illustrating the concept of an integrated social media ecosystem. Specifically, people found the blog via  Facebook and  Twitter, but also from the the Fairfax County website, as well as from the local news station’s website.

2. Their Ushahidi map trial was well received. They state the purpose of the mapping effort in the report:

“During Hurricane Sandy, we introduced two new mapping options for our community: a road closures map that we updated with hourly status changes and a crowdsource reporting map for people to submit what they were seeing to give us better situational awareness.”

How did it go? It went well enough that I’m guessing they will be expanding mapping efforts in future disaster events.  Road closures were a good choice to use in this trial because not only are they very dynamic data points, but are often one of the most asked about issues on social media sites during  and immediately after a storm. Their crowdsourced map had almost 13,000 views with 111 crowdsourced data points, and the road closure map had 16, 473 views.

3. Facebook is still a big player. After Hurricane Irene I was impressed that Fairfax County had 879  “Likes” (meaning the number of people who “liked” specific posts and comments, not the number of fans of the page). However, that pales in comparison to the 10,175 “Likes” they received during Sandy. They reached over 127, 254 people “virally” every day during this six-day period. A “viral reach” simply means citizens were re-sharing the Fairfax County content on their own Facebook pages. This type of viral content sharing should be a goal of every public safety organization. Why? Although it seems backwards, people often head warnings and take content more seriously if they receive it from friends versus government agencies.

What were your numbers? Are you tracking them? (I do realize that at time of writing this event is far from over for too many people.)

Related articles


Hurricane Sandy: Fairfax County, VA’s Crowdmap

Post by: Kim Stephens

We are used to seeing volunteers stand up maps that allow both reporting and viewing of citizen-generated situational information. But for Hurricane Sandy, Fairfax County, Virginia  Office of Emergency Management has jumped on the crowd-mapping bandwagon. In fact, this is one of the few “official”  crowdmaps I’ve seen in the United States. Most emergency management organizations are very leery of citizen generated content. I often hear EMs state: “What if people report wrong information? We will be held liable?” or “What if  people expect emergency services to show up since we are announcing that we are collecting this content?”  The list goes on and on. Fairfax County, the social media rockstars that they are, have decided the benefits outweigh the concerns.

They do, however, address some of these issues by stating prominently on the page:

“PLEASE READ: This reporting system is NOT a replacement for 9-1-1. If you are experiencing an emergency or need to officially report an incident, please call 9-1-1 or the public safety non-emergency number at 703-691-2131, TTY 711. This reporting system is a new tool we’re testing, so we do not expect it will be comprehensive. We will monitor your reports. If we see something significant you share, we will share it with emergency responders/planners. This will give us a selected sense of what’s happening across Fairfax County as a result of Hurricane Sandy.”

Post Hurricane Sandy,  I’ll be very interested to hear how well this platformed performed for them; for example, if they were able to obtain information about what was happening (downed trees, flooded roads and traffic lights out) more quickly than they would have otherwise. Nonetheless, I think it is a great step in the direction of openness and inclusiveness–no matter what it’s operational utility proves to be.

Washington Smoke Blogspot: A Truly Collaborative Effort

Post by: Kim Stephens

Smoke from the September 2012 fires in central Washington State continues to cause huge air quality concerns for local residents.  Last week public health officials, according to the Seattle Times,  went so far as to call conditions  “…worse than in the days after Mount St. Helens erupted and the region was coated with ash.”  Not surprisingly, this has manifested in very real public health problems and has led to hospitalizations and school closures.

“We have never had anything like this happen in Chelan or Douglas County and maybe never in the state of Washington,” said Mary Small, public-information officer for the Chelan-Douglas Health District. (Source:

As with any crisis, citizens want to know what is happening and how it impacts them. But in this era of information overload, feast is sometimes more of an issue than famine. This is especially true now that every  locality, State and Federal agency has a website, a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, etc.

Of course the Joint Information System is supposed to address this problem. In theory the JIS is designed to “integrate incident information and public affairs into a cohesive organization designed to provide consistent, coordinated, accurate, accessible, timely, and complete information during crisis or incident operations.” But, we all know this doesn’t always happen as seamlessly as the definition implies.

Washington Smoke Blog

The Washington Smoke Information blog, however, provides a great example of what a cohesive information  system can and does look like. According to the USDA’s Forest Service website, the blog combines information from numerous agencies including Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington State Department of Health, Washington tribes, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service and various Washington county health departments.

“This website [blog] is a big step forward in providing the public with one-stop information that will help them protect their health,” said Deputy Regional Forester Maureen Hyzer. “We recognize that smoke from wildfires is a big concern for the public. This site will help them get information quickly about the air quality where they live.”


Of course a website or a blog doesn’t coordinate information, people do. One interesting aspect of this blog is that, according to the USDA-FS website, it was put up with the assistance of  “a volunteer web group.” The volunteer-web-group is actually a Virtual Operations Support Team or VOST (see definition in the text box).

The Forest Service has been making use of VOSTs mostly due to the promotion and deployment of the concept by Kris Eriksen, the Public Information Officer (PIO) for the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Portland Team (a Type I Incident Management team). Ms. Eriksen has utilized VOSTs since 2011 to support social media and digital communications on numerous fires. The effort was documented by researchers during the 2011 Oregon, Shadow Lake Fire (read that document here.)

Who are these volunteers? Participants in this VOST effort include active emergency mangers who work during their off hours, people who have technical skills and an interest in emergency management, and even some regional forest service employees. Most have worked on previous VOST efforts.

Tools for Organization--With each VOST activation Ms. Eriksen and the team make use of Skype chat rooms and Google Docs to coordinate their efforts. Both communication and collaboration tools are seen as vital to the success of any deployment. The skype platform allows information to be relayed from the official organization via Ms. Eriksen to the VOST members in a text format: members can simply read the stream in order to determine what has transpired in previous communications and/or shifts. They also use the tool to discuss issues and receive direction in real-time. (I was given access and permission to read through the chat log.)

The Blog

In order to ensure citizens can quickly find the information they need, the Washington Smoke blog was designed–as stated above–as a one-stop shop. How do the volunteers fit in? It should be emphasized that VOST members are not involved in any of the following: decisions about what is posted; deciding if air quality is good versus hazardous; the wording on a press release or even the titles of the categories on the blog. They are, however, integral to the effort to pull content generated by official sources to the blog and populate the site with links and data from those sources as directed by the team leader.

Google Crisis Response

When citizens link to the blog site the first thing they will see is a prominently placed Google map. This map has multiple layers of data including: air quality–current conditions; air quality–tomorrow’s forecast; schools affected by the smoke; public alerts; Active Fire Perimeters; Inciweb (Incident Information System) fires; US Radar (Precipitation); and Cloud Imagery.

The Google Crisis Response Team worked very closely with Ms. Eriksen and the VOST  on this effort to provide a map that would help meet information needs of the local citizens.   Animation layers were added based on data available through actively participating organizations such as the Washington State Department of Ecology and the US EPA–just to name two. (I understand that getting the data into compatible formats was a little bit of a challenge.)  Although each organization has their own website to provide agency-specific content (see–Air Now a site that has Air quality information displayed on a map) , the Google map is the only place to find layered data: for instance, you can find schools within the hazardous air quality boundary.

Other information available on the site:

  • A map that is hyperlinked to National Weather Service real-time updates (labeled: Watches, Warnings and Advisories–the grey color indicates an air quality alert);
  • Daily updates of air quality from each county with the measures Good, Unhealthy, Moderate, Unhealthy for senstive groups and Hazardous;
  • Daily updates or press releases from any organization involved in the response. Yesterday, for example, there were posts such as:
  • A list of all of the hyperlinks to pertinent agencies, organizations and tools separated by categories including: County, State, Federal, Webcams, and Fire Information (which includes such sites as Inciweb and the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center);
  • FAQs;
  • Other resources;
  • Information in Spanish

According to the site-visit counter the page has received over 25,500 hits. That is a great success. I look forward to the after action report from this effort. I think there will be many great take-aways for other communities and agencies to learn from–for instance, the importance of sharing data in open formats. What do you want to know more about?

New Social Media Monitoring Tool: CrisisTracker

Post by: Kim Stephens

The post on this site “Data Data Everywhere…Monitoring Social Media in a Crisis” is my most popular, it seems everyone is looking for tools to help with the enormous task of organizing and making sense of the torrent of information provided through social media platforms during large scale incidents. Phd candidate Jakob Rogstadius of the University of Madeira‘s Interactive Technologies Institute commented on that post with a link to a new tool they are calling “CrisisTracker.”  He indicated that the tool is currently being tested with a deployment in Syria to collect and organize millions of tweets related to the ongoing civil war. The tool’s design team includes researchers at Madeira University, University of Oulu and IBM Research.

See the video below which describes the platform and its functionality. The about page of their site also has some good information including a comparison between the tool and Ushahidi. They state:

The biggest difference between the platform and Ushahidi is that Ushahidi focuses on curation of user-submitted reports, while CrisisTracker mines Twitter for reports, clusters them, and supports curation of report clusters. Both systems require humans to annotate pieces of information with meta-data such as location and report category.

Introduction to CrisisTracker from Jakob Rogstadius on Vimeo.

Let me know what you think.

What is Crisis Mapping?

Post by: Kim Stephens

I recently had a conversation with a colleague, who is very well versed in social media and emergency management, asking me to explain crisis mapping.  I am not an expert in that topic, but Jen Ziemke, the co-founder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers, now assistant professor at John Carroll University, and fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, certainly is. Her presentation at Notre Dame University on the use of crowdsourcing and digital mapping for humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was recorded and I have embedded that presentation below. As described on

She also covered how crisis mapping is being used in a wide variety of contexts, including for election monitoring and tracking of pro-democracy initiatives. This event was co-sponsored by University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science & Applications (iCeNSA), and the Master of Science in Global Health Program of the Eck Institute for Global Health.

Her presentation describes very clearly the concept and its application during disasters and humanitarian crises in first 8 minutes, however, I do recommend viewing it in its entirety.

See also: What Role Does a Crisis Mapper Play? 

The Social Media Tag Challenge: Crowdscanner describes how they won

Post by: Kim Stephens

On March 31st, the US State Department sponsored a game called  “Tag Challenge” that took social media monitoring to a new level.  It was designed by graduate students from six countries, “…the result of a series of conferences on social media and transatlantic security.”

They constructed a task that would be impossible for one person to complete: find 5 “jewel thieves”  in 5 cities across the globe in one day, photograph them, and upload the image.  The winning team, an MIT affiliated group which dubbed themselves “Crowdscanner,” was only able to find 3 of the 5 individuals, however, much was learned about how loosely connected distributed networks can be incentivized to solve a problem.

“The project demonstrates the international reach of social media and its potential for cross-border cooperation,” said project organizer Joshua deLara. “Here’s a remarkable fact: a team organized by individuals in the U.S., the U.K and the United Arab Emirates was able to locate an individual in Slovakia in under eight hours based only on a photograph.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the Crowdscanner team leaders, Dr. Manuel Cebrian of the University of California, San Diego (who also led a team that won the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge in 2009). What stood out to me from our conversation was his emphasis on their incentive structure versus the social media tools. The networking tools were simply the means to the end, but the structure of the reward incentive, which was born out by strong micro-economic theory, was absolutely fundamental to their success.

Another interesting component to the challenge was the interaction between the competing teams, which I found in background information provided by Dr. Cebrian.  Some rival teams actually attacked Crowdscanner on twitter with tweets questioning their competence and encouraging people not to support them. As the challenge period came to a close, these attacks became increasingly desperate–even mentioning that Crowdscanner was not from DC and therefore shouldn’t win. That team emphasized that they were “playing for charity,” which the Crowdscanner team noted “…even though it was clearly not in line with their vitriolic attitude towards us.”

How this competing team used twitter to find information also provides a lesson:

[The other team’s] strategy for spreading awareness consisted of their Twitter account… surfing trending hashtags, and tweet-spamming many individuals, social, governmental and private organizations in the target cities, often with an explicit plea for a retweet. The vast majority of these were ignored and, we believe, reduced their credibility.

Q: What does this challenge tell us about incentives and social mobilization? 

We used an incentive scheme that is designed to encourage two things simultaneously: (1) reporting to us if you found a target; (2) helping recruit other people to search for the target. Here’s how we described it: If we win, you will receive $500 if you upload an image of a suspect that is accepted by the challenge organizers. If a friend you invited using your individualized referral link uploads an acceptable image of a suspect, YOU also get $100. Furthermore, recruiters of the first 2000 recruits who signed up by referral get $1 for each recruit they refer to sign up with us (using the individualized referral link). See their webpage for more info on the design.

Graphic by Crowdscanner

The incentive to refer others is significant, since otherwise, you would actually rather keep the information to yourself, rather than inform your friends, since they would essentially compete with you over the prize. But by paying you for referring them also, the incentives change fundamentally.

Q: What tools were you using to monitor twitter?

Monitoring twitter was the smallest component. In fact,  monitoring  was the easy part, since the data is there to be sorted and analyzed. The biggest challenge was finding the non-twitter data: we had to infer how information was spread.

Q: Why did you all succeed?

We were able to succeed by leveraging a combination of social media and traditional media, and by building up a reputation as a credible, reliable team. Some competitors focused purely on social media, almost using Twitter exclusively to spread their message. This is not enough, as they became perceived as spammers. We were more selective in our Tweets and social media strategy, and I believe this gave us an edge.

Q: Do you think this model could work for finding real “jewel thieves” or high target terrorism suspects? 

Ransoms are complicated incentives. With traditional ransoms, once you have the information you have no incentive to recruit people to help you. Why would you team up?  So the question becomes, how can you structure it so that people are not greedy? We used the same incentive structure for the balloon challenge. These micro-economic models [and the way we employed them] demonstrate that people do recruit their friends, but only if they are provided the right incentive.  If you spread the word, then you get the money.

Q: So, why aren’t organizations using this distributed network model?

Centralized systems are inefficient but they are predictable. In a distributed system you have high efficiency but also have high unpredictability.

Gathering evidence is easy, doing justice is hard. We need to have models that make sense of the data. But currently,  we don’t have this kind of training. It is a new science: “network science” at most, a 10 year-old discipline, and only a few people that can make sense of it. It will take a while for us to be able to use these tools in any concerted way.

Related articles

What role does a volunteer “CrisisMapper” play?

JAROSLAV VALUCH / Standby Task Force

JAROSLAV VALUCH / Standby Task Force (Photo credit: SHAREconference)

Post by: Kim Stephens

It seems there has been a lot of conversations on the #SMEM (or Social Media and Emergency Management) twitter hashtag about using volunteers to help response organizations deal with the huge volume of information that comes from social networks during a crisis. (One conversation was this recent chat.)  Organizing those volunteers into a group with set expectations of what they will provide, and then integrating their work into the response effort,  are the logical next steps.

One organization doing just that is the Standby Task Force (SBTF).  They have set out to “…[turn] the adhoc groups of tech-savy mapping volunteers that emerge around crises into a flexible, trained and prepared network ready to deploy. The SBTF is a volunteer-based network that represents the first wave in Online Community Emergency Response Teams.”

The SBTF  was tasked by the United Nations in March-April, 2011 to provide sense-making to social media data during the ongoing crisis in Libya. Jen Ziemke posted this video to the Crisis Mapper’s blog of Helena Puig from SBTF discussing the  deployment during the ICCM conference .  I thought it really provided some great insights into what went well and what could be improved.

Another great resource, for those interested in the topic, is this google doc: Standby Task Force UN OCHA.  It is their After Action Report of the Libyan effort.