Tag Archives: Massachusetts

More Research on Boston Marathon Official Twitter Activity #SMEM

Post by: Kim Stephens

Project Hazards Emergency Response and Online Informal Communication (HEROIC)* has posted two more reports that describe their research around the use of Twitter by public safety organizations during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing (see the complete citation at the end of this post).  You can read them in their entirety by clicking the hyperlinked titles and then choosing “Research Highlights.”

Below, I briefly describe both of these reports and provide the most significant findings.

Emergency services working after the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings

Emergency services working after the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings

 Micro-structure in Broadcasting Messages

The Microstructure report reviews  “conversational microstructures.”  They specifically examined whether or not Federal, State or local entities took part in or were the focus of the conversation on Twitter.  For the purposes of the study,  conversational Tweets were identified if they included a hyperlink, a hashtag, an @ message  or were ReTweeted, each of which  “…signify varying dimensions of online engagement…. Aspects of conversational microstructure use are of interest because they provide insights into which Twitter messages are amplified and why.”


By studying the data in a systematic fashion (which they describe) they found something very interesting regarding the use of hashtags–by now a common item  in public Tweets, especially for advance notice events.  They discovered that even though this crisis lasted a week, there was NOT a consistent use of one particular hashtag by public safety organizations. They state:

While there were a series of events throughout the week, including the detonation of improvised explosive devices at the beginning of the week, the killing of a police officer at MIT, and the lockdowns of Boston and Watertown, there was no indication that a consistent hashtag emerged or trended among official organizations to organize their content into a traceable stream.

That finding, in my opinion, can be turned into a simple take-away lesson:  agencies that are part of the Joint Information System should immediately determine which hashtags will be used throughout an event to ensure the broadest possible message distribution (of note, the public initially used the tag #BostonMarathon, which was rarely used by public safety organizations). Furthermore, this could have easily been something decided upon when planning for the marathon. The researchers note:

Hashtags that were utilized varied by sector, such as #tweetfromthebeat, #WANTED, and #CommunityAlert by law enforcement, and #oneboston from local government, indicating different aspects of the response.  However, a single hashtag, related to the weeklong investigation and subsequent manhunt and capture, did not emerge.

800px-Scenes_and_approximate_times_of_events_of_April_18-19Tweeting What Matters

Increasingly there are a variety of systems or channels in place to notify the public about what protective action measures they should take before, during or immediately following a crisis event. These systems include everything from the Emergency Alert System–which should reach almost everyone, to targeted text messages from local Universities,  to reverse phone calls from local government, to opt-in mobile applications from the State, etc., all of which were used at some point during the manhunt stage of the crisis. The Project HEROIC report, however, specifically examined Tweets that were posted that contained guidance  to  shelter-in-place, therefore “discussing the role of Twitter as a redundant channel for risk communications.”


Interestingly, they found that during the immediate aftermath of the bombing (on Monday) there were not a lot of official Tweets providing direction to the public. They speculate why: “…few [protective action] guidance-related tweets were posted, possibly signifying the lack of certainty about the event, the speed at which it unfolded, and having little information regarding what people should do in response.  However, at the end of the week, guidance tweets became more prevalent and focused on sheltering in place.”

They found that during the manhunt stage of the event Twitter was “definitely” used as a redundant channel to provide protective action guidance to the public; however, the public did not necessary repeat (ReTweet) these message as much as other content posted by official organizations. Again, this finding required the researchers  to speculate. They conclude that since the information about the protective action measure was provided  in so many different formats, it is quite possible that people did not feel the information required repeating–particularly not during the day once it was widely distributed and repeated on all forms of media.

Mission Hill Capture Celebrations

Mission Hill Capture Celebrations

The take-aways for the researchers:

“With this in mind, it is becoming prudent for organizations to consider the kinds of information that is most desired by an online audience, at different points in time, and for different sectors of the public.

Messages can be crafted for both locally affected community members in need of advisories and guidance, as well as distant observers intent on serving as information conduits.  Future disaster communicators ought to learn from these detailed observations about public retweeting practices in order to determine how to more effectively focus, shape, and share messages that make a difference.”

Let me know what you think. Does their analysis fit with your own experience?


Sutton, J., Johnson, B.,  Spiro, E.,  and Butts, C. (2013). “Tweeting What Matters: Information, Advisories, and Alerts Following the Boston Marathon Events.” Online Research Highlight. http://heroicproject.org

Sutton, J., Spiro, E., Johnson, B., Fitzhugh, S., and Butts, C. (2013). “Tweeting Boston: The Influence of Microstructure in Broadcasting Messages through Twitter.” Online Research Highlight. http://heroicproject.org

**Project HEROIC is a collaborative, NSF funded effort by researchers at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the University of California-Irvine to better understand the dynamics of informal online communication in response to extreme events.

Tornadoes and the deaf community: Are you reaching all of your citizens?

The Republican's David Molnar captured the First Church of Monson's steeple laying in ruins on the ground.

In September, a deaf woman who blogs under the name “xpressive hands” posted a story about her experiences trying to gain critical life-saving crisis communications during major severe weather events and the earthquake in Central Pennsylvania. For her, the answer became twitter. This passage illustrates why.

“Twitter gave me up to the minute road closures from tweets by others trying to get back to their homes. Road after road was flooding as tweet after tweet appeared telling us which roads not to take. Because of these tweets, my husband was able to get off of work just in time to come through the secondary roads before they, too, were closed. At first, no one thought it was anything to be in a hurry about..then the flash floods started.”

One thing that stood out to me from her story was that she was not gaining the critical info from emergency response personnel but from others in the impacted area.  She states “Twitter is instant, accessible, and if you follow the right people, accurate.” That begs the question, shouldn’t we, in the emergency management community, be in that information stream?

Phd candidate Steph Jo Kent took the question of how the deaf community receives critical information a step further. What follows is her examination of how that community received information during an outbreak of tornados in Western Massachusetts on June 1, 2011. Where the above example provides anecdotal evidence and one person’s opinion, this research provides a more in depth analysis.  This is a cross post. She blogs at “Reflexivity“.

By: Steph Jo Kent “Tornadoes and the Deaf Community in Western Massachusetts”

Last spring and summer was windy in Massachusetts: a gust front on May 4th, possible microbursts on May 26-27, and then four people died in the seven tornadoes that tore across Massachusetts in early June.

Using a regional email list to contact a convenience sample, a brief, spontaneous survey was used to gather information about the Deaf community’s experience with the system of Emergency Management in the region. As far as I’m aware, no Deaf people were adversely affected by the tornadoes, which means there are no particular experiences with First Responders to report – good or bad (this time). Nonetheless the survey generated some interesting data which might be useful in generating hypotheses for future testing and eventually guiding design for better warning systems, improved emergency preparation, and the smooth integration of emergency response service delivery to people with so-called “functional needs” or otherwise requiring “additional assistance.”

Demographics and Timing

Ten Deaf and seventeen non-deaf (“hearing”) people responded to the survey. They live and work all over the western part of the state (see map). The sample is too tiny for statistical significance, but shows that three times as many non-deaf “Hearing” people learned of the tornado warning before the tornadoes formed, and twice as many Deaf learned of the tornadoes only after they had occurred.

Warnings Reach More Hearing People than Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing

Warnings Reach More Hearing People than Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing

Sources of Warning

Contrary to what one would expect based on Deaf cultural norms, the community grapevine was not effective in alerting Deaf people to the Tornado Warning. While this may be a feature of the relative isolation of Deaf people living in the rural part of the state, it definitely highlights the importance of making sure mainstream messages are also channeled directly and conspicuously in a manner to catch “the deaf eye.”

Deaf not alerted by friends or family? Counters common sense...

People who did receive the Warning were likely to learn about it from several sources. Fifty percent reported learning about the tornadoes from more than one media source. Being ‘plugged in’ to various media might increase the chances that you will receive a Warning in a timely fashion. (Social Media and news beats out face-to-face communication.)

Social Media and News beats out Face-to-Face Communication of Warning

As mentioned above, these results suggest directions for further investigation. In addition to the numbers, several respondents added comments or questions, providing some qualitative hints about where to focus future efforts at improving communication with the Deaf community regarding emergency warnings.

Conflicting Signals

Below, I will post the brief explanations people gave about how they learned about the tornadoes. One story caught my attention because of a similarity with a story from a survivor of the Joplin, MO tornado. The National Weather Service (NWS) Service Assessment reports variations in the perception of risk by residents in Joplin based upon “signals” from the environment. Some of the signals from the business community were in conflict:

…the restaurant shut its doors and refused entry, this resident perceived the threat of severe weather as real and commented during the interview that he did not want to be in his car. Upon arriving at another restaurant close by, however, his perception of threat was diminished because business at this second establishment was carrying on as normal: he was escorted to a table and ordered a meal. (p. 6)

Here is one of the respondents to the survey about the tornadoes in western Massachusetts:

“I went shopping in the town of Hadley… and noticed the darkening of the skies…while I was still in the store.. When I got out.. it was thundering and lightening very badly.. and I went on to shop at 2 more stores.. nearby.. not realizing the tornado was hitting Spfld.”

Hadley is not one of the communities struck by a tornado, so the comparison between the two experiences is not tight. The point about perception and awareness of risk based on signals, however, is crucial: what is the most desirable role of businesses in regard to public safety?

Confusion, Questions and (some) Clarity

“I knew nothing about what to do in a tornado. In fact at my school (work) there were disagreements about what to do among the school leaders. I heard about the same issues from other people in other work places. New England is prepared for a lot of things but not tornadoes.”

Another person was using the local transportation for people with disabilities:

“PVTA driver appeared not aware of tornado in premise. I was in van and tornado went across road by just right after van went thru. We surprise after my stop and people pointing to tornado.”

Protect Yourself!

The proper physical response:

  1. get indoors
  2. ideally in a basement or bathroom
  3. you should already have an emergency kit prepared for each member of your family and pets!

How to get Warnings?

“I feel it would be easier if we receive a special message like “Deaf Emergency and Weather” so that way deaf people can read the word “Deaf” to help people to prepare quickly to save themselves.”

Deaf people compose a population that has no systematic, institutionalized, reliable means of receiving timely and accurate information about an unfolding disaster. Suggestions include using pagers, email or text alert to cell phone, video sign mail through video relay operators, and a call-in number for updates. Few respondents to this survey knew how to sign up with their Town for special alerts (most Towns in western MA do not even offer this service), and others were unsure how to confirm their inclusion in such a system:

“Where would it indicate that I have signed up?” (as one survey respondent asked), is a simple question with a long history:

“Of course we all know that the deaf people are few and far apart in rural Western Mass and the hearing authorities hope and pray that somehow the deafʼs hearing friends would notify them. Sadly many hearing people knew nothing also.”

The View from an Emergency Planner

I have been invited and welcomed into some planning, evaluation and review sessions of emergency planners and emergency responders as they have debriefed and critiqued what worked and what could be improved. Overall, the system of emergency response functioned incredibly well: loss of life was minimized and societal processes got ‘back to normal’ in a quick and resilient manner. What I have observed, informally, is a network of strong, respectful, and collegial relationships with built-in capacity and motivation to improve.

First Responders are justified in feeling satisfied that they did the best they could under the circumstances, and – impressively – everyone that I have met to date has the goal in mind to do even better in the next emergency. These tornadoes were a powerful event whose effects will persist, both in terms of personally-experienced tragedy of losing loved ones and recovering from property damage, but also in terms of addressing gaps where preparation, communication and response are still relatively weak.

For instance, Kathleen Conley Norbut, the Medical Reserve Corp Coordinator for Western Massachusetts and School Project Manager for IRAA (Individuals Requiring Additional Assistance) Project in Western MA, reflected on the opportunity during a “School Emergency Preparedness” Conference about three weeks after the tornadoes.

On June 1st, a lot of things changed for a lot of people in this region. Some of us [responsible for emergency planning & response] were close to an impact region. Those of us who didn’t lose property, are still being impacted emotionally, physically. We had a “No Notice tornado” in a region where people by and large don’t believe it can happen…. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, caught in a pink tule dress. We learned first-hand the havoc that a tornado can wreak….. Brimfield, Monson, Oxford, Springfield, Sturbridge, Westfield and Wilbraham …. We still have a daily reminder of how devastating this natural force can really be.

How fast it unfolded:

  • MEMA issues alert: “we’re watching this thing”
  • called son…. bad connection, told him would try again later
  • “at that point, things had just unleashed, communications became extraordinarily difficult”
  • the town of Monson’s communication center, the EOC, got wiped out – when your response center, the technology, all you’ve practiced, the manuals, everything gets obliterated, it adds complications to what you’ve already considered

Now [afterwards], all the ‘what if’s’ come up – what if it hops ‘here’ or ‘there’, etc. Tornadoes are random, not only is the violence of a tornado awesome – I don’t have words for it, I am awestruck….. it’s path is so random….

  • WHAT IF it happened at school release time?
  • WHAT IF it happened when youth with disabilities are boarding special transportation?
  • WHAT IF it happened after kids are en route home?
  • WHAT IF it happened when there wasn’t a communication system?

In keeping with this mode of “what if” thinking, especially about the timing of an emergency event, an interesting observation was made by one of the survey respondents:

“Most deaf have a pager so that seems to be the best way to reach them – especially during the day. In evenings most people are using computers and watching TV. Local TV stations do a good job of warning the audience so that part is ok. It’s the daytime situation that needs to be looked at.”

Notification Stories

This survey is unique in that it represents a a collection of experiences from members of the Deaf community in regard to one specific incident. Their particular stories about receiving or not receiving a warning message are familiar to anyone involved with emergency response because these are common experiences shared by people of any and every social identity group.

At the same time, however, there is a distinction regarding communication that requires special and dedicated attention: there are several things in regard to effectively including Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people within the emergency response system that need to be looked at.

  • “Never knew there was a tornado warning – nor did my friends at work who are hearing. We just got lucky.”
  • “I learned when I turned on TV after I saw dark, rain and hails. Tornado did not happen in my area.”
  • “Not till I got home from work. Saw weather channel tornado already passed”
  • “I did not know about the risk. I only heard about the tornado after the fact. I heard about it when a friend and I stopped to get out of the hail and rain at a small grocery store and my friend told me because she heard someone saying there was a tornado in Springfield.”
  • “Around 3 pm on Wednesday June 1st. I checked weather.com through my blackberry pager and that was how I found out.”
  • “I got text message from my bf that he informed me about it.”
  • “When I was in Framingham, I was told there was tornado warning. I wasn’t sure where but I drove back to Ware while tornado already hit Springfield. Me lucky!”
  • “Husband received by weather alert on his cell phone when we were on our way home from a doctors appointment.”

Information from this survey was shared at the
Western Region Homeland Security Action Council‘s
After Action Review Meeting on October 6, 2011
Holyoke, MA