The merits and dark sides of social media have been hotly debated in the short time that it has been a daily presence, but one useful function of social media may have been a bit unexpected: recording and cataloging important data during a disaster or emergency, and managing disaster response.
On August 23, 2011, New Yorkers saw Twitter alerts about powerful earthquake activity in Virginia a full 20 seconds before the seismic waves also impacted New York City. This highlights a main reason to turn to social media in a wide-spread emergency. It’s fast.
“The best source to get timely information during a disaster is social media, particularly microblogs like Twitter,” says Prasenjit Mitra, associate dean for research in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology. “Newspapers have yet to print and blogs have yet to publish, so Twitter allows for a near real-time view of an event from those impacted by it.”
Mitra was part of a study composed of researchers from Penn State, the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, and the Qatar Computing Research Institute. Together, they created an algorithm that analyzes Twitter data to identify sub-events of disasters. The data about those sub-events is used to generate highly accurate, real-time summaries that can be used to prioritize activities of emergency responders.
The study included data from more than 2.5 million tweets posted during three major global catastrophes:
- Typhoon Hagupit that hit the Philippines in 2014
- The 2014 flood in Pakistan
- The 2015 earthquake in Nepal
Volunteers from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs trained a machine learning system by manually categorizing the millions of tweets into different sub-events, including food, medicine or infrastructure. This resulted in the “Dependency-Parser-based SUB-event detection” algorithm or “DEPSUB”, which is being called “promising” for automatically creating a base relief plan for future disasters.
On a civilian scale, more people worldwide are turning to social media for quick message, text or email alerts about disasters. The Red Cross recently released results from a Canadian study that found about two-thirds of Canadians would sign up for digital disaster alerts today, compared to the half of Canadians who reported an inclincation to sign up in a similar 2012 survey. Overall, the future of emergency preparedness and response is looking decidedly digital.