Tag Archives: United States Department of State

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.

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Social Media and the Japan earthquake: What we can learn.

Post by: Kim Stephens

With every disaster the importance of social media and its potential power seems to grow.  Numerous articles have already been written (just 3 days into the event) about the importance of the medium during this particular crisis, so I’d like to just highlight what I have observed so far. This post is particularly for the cynics who say: “I will never use social media.” or “It’s just a fad.” or “It’s just for teenagers.”

1. People are using social media to determine the whereabouts and well-being of their loved ones.

This has proven to be one of the most reliable ways to find information. Why? This tweet from the US State Department says it all: “Telephone lines disrupted; try contacting loved ones.. via social media.” Many stories are showing up in local papers about families doing just that. From news King5.com out of Seattle, the story: Seattle’s Japanese community tries making contact after quake:

Patty Johnson’s son, Aaron, lives in Tokyo with his wife, who is seven months pregnant.
“It’s just worry, worry, worry,” she said. “Is he OK?” The story recounts how after several hours of waiting news comes that their loved one is OK, via facebook.  “Thank God for Facebook,” she said.

From Boise: Social Media Proves Reliable communication in a time of crisis.

Geoff told KTVB he loves the power of social media.  He is excited to be able to connect with media organizations on Twitter for news updates, and also be able to get updates from his dad in Japan on Facebook at the same time.

Carol Dunn, an emergency management professional and twitter friend, suggested that social media/tech volunteers should be organized to go into nursing homes that have a large population of Japanese americans. These volunteers could bring their laptop computers and facilitate communications via social networks for residence so they can gain information about friends and family. She contacted a Japanese american group on twitter and is currently looking into how to make this happen (maybe with high school volunteers, or crisis commons type volunteers). This is a brand-new idea, but one I think worth pursuing.

2. Social Media are often the best way to gain situational awareness

Social media platforms have become the best way to get information from the scene, and from response organizations (domestic and international). 

As one example, someone on twitter pointed to a link of videos from the impacted area–which were amazing. I left the computer for a bit and went to the gym. While watching MSNBC, they went to a correspondent who proudly showed a video “just in” which was the exact same video I’d watched an hour earlier. With regard to response organizations, the US military and US Department of State post constant information to their twitter feeds, by monitoring them you can get the information basically at the same time the media is getting it, and the media doesn’t always report each item, so you have more information than you would otherwise.

So, how do you monitor these sources: Mashable has a good article  HOW TO: Follow the Japan Earthquake Online (mashable.com) which details which hashtags to follow on twitter and has a good list of resources. But with regard to HOW to use twitter, particularly when there are 1200 tweets per minute, that’s a little trickier. If you use an application like Tweetdeck or Hootesuite, the tweets, particularly right after a event happens, go by so fast that you really can’t read them at all. Several power users online including Chris Hall (@thefiretracker2) and Cheryle Bledsoe (@CherylBle) and others made some great suggestions:

  • Use a twitter application that can be slowed down or stopped altogether. As Cheryl said last night:  “throttle issue is important when a hashtag is blowing up. Tweetdeck usually works, but ability to pause tweets is #priceless” How to do this, from Cheryl again: “use www.twitterfall.com and set the speed or pause the stream until you catch up”.
  • Choose a few power users to follow from the impacted area–for example, government agencies, people in the news media, or just people who seems to be tweeting great info (especially if they are tweeting in your language). You can then create a list to follow. In tweetdeck, here a link to how to do that: “How do I create a new Twitter list in Tweetdeck?” List can also be created in twitter itself and other applications have this ability as well.
  • If you are not on twitter at all, you can go to google alerts and use the realtime function. You can either search a term such as earthquake or tsunami or you can search hashtags if you know them, for example #eqjp or #HITsunami. You can pause the stream as well. If you are not a twitter user, this will also point you to other searches you might want to do, because people often include more than one hashtag in their tweets. The realtime function also includes updates from facebook as well.
  • The timeline feature allows you go back in time and there is a handy list of top tweets.
  • Update: another twitter friend @Metalerik told me that you can pause tweetdeck. (I didn’t do my homework.) From Tweetdeck’s support page:

“Pause a column

You can pause the updates in a column by scrolling down in the column so the top update is not visible. This will cause updates to queue up while you read your updates in the column. To allow the updates to continue again, just scroll back up to the top.”

3. People in harm’s way DO use social media to gain information.

I have heard response organizations and local government agencies bemoan their low number of “fans” during the preparedness phase. But, as I have said before: if you build it people will come–especially during a crisis. This was borne out again in Hawaii as a result of the tsunami. The FireTracker2 reported via twitter that the County of Maui saw a 700% increase in their facebook fans. You can see from the screen capture below that the community was grateful for their efforts.The counties’ page is really quite good, they had a wonderful series of pictures of county authorities rescuing a giant turtle that washed ashore after the tsunami. The community, luckily, received very little damage–and I think it turned out pretty well for the turtle too.

This is just a short list of what we are learning but we seem to be learning these same three lessons with each crisis. One last point: social media is not going away. If you are not a social media user, tap into the wealth of information out there and use this event as a way to learn how to monitor these new mediums. Hopefully, if you were on the fence about using social media for your response organization, this example will change your mind.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by this crisis.

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