Tag Archives: SwiftRiver

Crowdsourcing Down Under

Post by: Kim Stephens

The Brisbane, Australia City Council has deployed a Ushahidi map in response to flooding occuring in their community.  What is Ushahidi? Watch the 2 minute video on their website, but in general the software allows for reports from anyone (the public, first responders, government agencies) to be submitted and posted to an interactive map.

For this instance of Ushahidi they are currently only displaying three categories of information: flooded roads, road closures and sandbag locations.  For example, the map above shows a pink dot for all road closures.  Brisbane City Council also has a twitter feed they are using to not only provide critical information, but also to advertise the map’s existence.  Citizens can report information about the flood by sending a tweet to the hashtag #bccroads or by filling in the form on the website. People are also clearly sending information by “@” messaging the Council via twitter. (Ushahidi has a mobile platform, however, I’m not sure if that application is being utilized for this event.)
I like how the Council replies to the reports of flooding by also reminding the citizen, as well as everyone else, about the map.

The benefit of this map, which includes highly decentralized, hyper-local information, is demonstrated  by simply clicking on one of the icons. Each blue dot represents a road closure that the user can click to obtain the full report, pictured above. This report states “Bowman Parade (road) is currently experiencing localized flooding. Please do not attempt to drive through flood waters.” The platform also allows the user to understand if the information has been verified or not, and in this case, is has been. There are 64 reports currently listed.

This isn’t groundbreaking. However, I am intrigued that a government agency has so completely embraced crowdsourced information. They understand that first responders can’t be everywhere, but citizens, armed with cell phones and an easy way to report what they are seeing, can provide critical, life-saving information for the benefit of everyone. I read a blog post just yesterday by an American first responder who  lamented that there was no great way to gather information from the crowd. I’m always a bit surprised to read posts like that, which is why I continue to write about Ushahidi and similar applications. If you are aware of any US government, local or state, that has deployed Ushahidi, let me know.

Top 3 FAQs for Social Media and EM Beginners

Post by: Kim Stephens

Whenever someone presents the concept of using social media for emergency management to people new to the medium, the same questions emerge again and again. I’m not going to pretend I have the answers to all of these questions, but I would like to put forth the top 3 questions and propose that the SMEM community develop a repository of FAQs with succinct answers to be housed at either  the First Responders Communities of Practice “MakingAmerica Safer through Social Media” portal (registration required), and/or the sm4em.org website. The answers I’m giving below are examples and by no means 100% complete.

1. How do you know who you are talking to when you are using social media?

I can almost understand why this is a question. Looking through available information for government agency types on the Howto.gov website, most of the content relates mostly to “pushing” information. There’s only one sentence about  answering questions directly from the public, in which they implore you to, ironically,  “Be a real person”.  So, how do you know the person on the other end of the conversation is a real, particularly on twitter?

What is impersonation?

Impersonation is pretending to be another person or entity in order to deceive. Impersonation is a violation of the Twitter Rules and may result in permanent account suspension. Twitter users are allowed to create parody, commentary, or fan accounts. Please refer to Twitter’s Parody Policy for more information about these accounts. Accounts with the clear intent to confuse or mislead may be permanently suspended.

  • Observe twitter in action by signing up and participating in the medium. You will learn that the people are as real as the people in your email inbox (and yes, your email inbox gets spam too).

2. How do you know the information is true/valid?

There really isn’t a succinct  answer to this question, it depends on many factors. If a response organization is trying to verify large amounts of data from social media streams during a crisis, Swiftriver is one of the few tools I’m aware of for this function. I’ve written about it before, but here’s a summary:

SwiftRiver is a free and open source platform that helps people make sense of a lot of information in a short amount of time. The SwiftRiver platform was born out of the need to understand and act upon a wave of massive amounts of crisis data that tends to overwhelm in the first 24 hours of a disaster. Since then, there has been a great deal of interest in this tool for other industries, such as news rooms and brand monitoring groups.

In practice, SwiftRiver enables the filtering and verification of real-time data from channels such as Twitter, SMS, Email and RSS feeds. This free tool is especially useful for organizations who need to sort their data by authority and accuracy, as opposed to popularity. These organizations include the media, emergency response groups, election monitors and more. This might include journalists and other media institutions, emergency response groups, election monitors and more.

If you are not employing a filtering tool, such as the one mentioned above, you can understand the validity of the information in various ways:

  1. Through your understanding of the person sending you the information, e.g. have they sent me correct information before?.
  2. Through deduction, e.g. CNN has not reported an earthquake yet, but I can see on  TrendsMap hundreds of tweets coming from Japan indicating they’ve had an earthquake.
  3. Or by aggregation (20 people are saying very similar things about an event).

There are many articles and blog posts that address this topic, here are a few:

3. What is the Return of investment (ROI)/and how much time does SM take; how do you measure success? (These are all related so I lumped them together.)

The community interested in social media and emergency management needs to come up with a succinct answer to these related questions in order to  dispel the myth that social media is an expensive endeavor that has no real rate of return and that participation requires too much staff or personal time. As a point of comparison, the 311 system was implemented in some cities in order to take pressure off of the 911 system, and this effect has been documented; similar research might be required for social media interactions. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence indicates that people will not call EOCs or 911 as often if they have information through other means. When you are talking on the phone, almost by definition, you are talking to one person–that is very time-consuming. But by answering a person’s question on a social media platform there’s a high probability that you’ve answered that question for others. Here are a few other points:

  • News media will not call PIOs begging for updates if they are receiving a constant stream of info from twitter or RSS feeds (according to an account by Jeremy Heidt, PIO Tennessee Emergency Management Agency).
  • Citizens post questions and concerns directly to facebook page or ask through twitter accounts rather than calling (QPSMedia, Australia).
  • The amount of time spent going through email decreases (EMs Cheryl Bledsoe and Jeff Philips both indicate this has happened for them).
  • People start showing up to events that were never well attended before (this is a recurring story from MANY different public agencies I’ve spoken to).
  • People will turn to you in droves if you supply information on social media platforms: In Australia the “likes” on the Queensland Police Service facebook page pre-flooding crisis=6,400: post crisis=165,000. (I’d say that’s a pretty good measure of success.)

The IACP Social Media “how-to” website site does have an analytics fact sheet if you are interested in hard numbers to measure social media success. But in general, if you are doing social media effectively and are fully committed, you will know you are successful based on the feedback you are getting from the community. You could measure this good will by taking surveys of people’s opinion of your agency, as long as you have a similar survey to compare it with pre-social media. We aren’t the only ones worrying about this topic. Read this transcript of this discussion of local government types in Great Britain. The top suggestion, I thought:

Measure channel shift & behavior change. Measure ratio online v offline interactions to see the effect digital communications have.

None of this is as easy as we’d like it to be. But maybe a FAQ repository would be a good start. Please add questions you are hearing as a comment. I hope we can take this up as SMEMchat topic as well.

Swift River: A tool for organizing Social Media Crisis Information

Post by: Kim Stephens

Although I usually don’t advocate any particular tool,  today I do want to talk about Swift River. Swift enables users to make sense of lots of information across the web in a timely manner. The ability to aggregate data is a key feature that should make this (mostly free) and open-source platform attractive to emergency managers.

Why do emergency managers need to aggregate data from the web and social media sites? The answer is simple, they don’t.  But, if your community is using social media to connect to citizens during non-disaster events, you should expect your citizens will use that same conduit to ask for assistance or to inform the city/county of problems during a crisis. The recent snow storm in the Northeast provided ample examples of how this may occur. Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, had an active twitter account before the blizzard–over a million followers; after the snow fell in prodigious amounts, the citizens used this communications platform to let him know about problems they were experiencing.

The pic left has a few examples, most were messages about streets that had not been plowed or problems with signs and fire hydrants. Although it appears he was able to handle the amount of information and questions that he had to sift through during the strom’s aftermath, I think this type of engagement made a lot of emergency managers nervous: How will we be able to keep up with the torrent of requests from citizens during large-scale disasters?

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to introduce SwiftRiver today. In the future–very near future, we will need to be able to do four things quickly:

  1. curate relevant/new situational awareness data as seen from our citizens’ perspective (they are everywhere–our city workers are not)
  2. verify information from non-governmental sources
  3. discard duplicative information
  4. display information in a interactive format with access to and from multiple agencies (including potentially volunteer organizations)

Currently there are not too many platforms that will do all of those tasks, but the folks at SwiftRiver have been working on this concept since March of 2009. From their website:

The SwiftRiver platform offers organizations an easy way to combine natural language/artificial intelligence process, data-mining for SMS and Twitter, and verification algorithms for different sources of information. Swift’s user-friendly dashboard means that users need not be experts in artificial intelligence or algorithms to aggregate and validate information. The intuitive dashboard allows users to easily manage sources of information they wish to triangulate, such as email, Twitter, SMS and RSS feeds from the web.

The key word here in this description is  “users”. Although there is quite a bit of automation in this platform, it still requires actual humans to comb through the data. Some of the tedious work is eliminated, for example the software deletes duplicates or “flags” potential duplicative information, but the act of assigning a veracity score still depends on the user. If your organization does choose to employ a tool like this one, I would recommend that multiple people be trained on how to sort data. (Could this be a job for CERT members?)

This application works well with the mapping tool “Ushahidi” and its developers are members of the Ushahidi team. Ushahidi, at its core, is simply a platform that allows users to place information on a map. You might recall its use during the Haitian earthquake response in which volunteers mapped crowdsourced information regarding damage and injuries.

I expect that in the future there will be lots of competitors for the Swift product, but for now it is difficult to find anything with all of these capabilities. Nonetheless, the website still feels like a start-up.  I’m also not sure how long they will be able to offer the product for free. Currently they still list it as a “free and open source” platform, but their website has a tab for “pricing”.  I’m guessing parts of it will remain free, but organizations, such as  local governments, will probably be expected to pay for the service if they want to take full advantage of all of its capabilities.