The difference between a natural hazard and a disaster comes from the effect it has on people. More and more everyday people are turning to social media to find out what is going on within their area and community of friends as well as their traditional information sources such as mainstream media. Through the work we’re doing at Project EPIC at the University of Colorado at Boulder, we are focused on using social media to help collect and organise information in a way which will allow people to find out what is happening during a time of crisis.
Of course, one fantastic aspect of social media is the social part – it means you can ask specific things in it and get a response, and it doesn’t matter what kind of social standing you have. It also means people can come together to put little bits of information in, and create a really reliable, up to date repository of information that others can search on. Social media makes ‘crowdsourcing’ possible, relevant and, particularly in crisis events, timely.
At our lab, we are working with volunteers, official agencies and everyday citizens to create easy-to-use tools that everyone can contribute to. Whether they are willing to pitch in for a few minutes, or a few days, everyone’s help means we can organise the information in social media more quickly – ultimately if you take a few minutes to volunteer to use the tools you already know how to use, then you could actually save lives – or at the very least, take some panic out of the event for the people involved.
Our current tool is a format most people are familiar with, even if they don’t use it themselves very often. Twitter has a massive number of users, all around the world. However with hundreds of thousands of tweets being put out every minute, gathering information from them about a hazard event, and then showing it in an easy way to citizens and authorities is a difficult problem.
We use a system called Tweak the Tweet (TtT). Using TtT is easy – start by opening your twitter account, and then do a search on the hazard event (for example, for hurricane Irene, enter the word Irene.) All the tweets dealing with the hurricane will come up. Choose one of the tweets, and then go to your ‘What are you doing’ window, and rewrite the tweet in the format that our TtT computer will pick up when it scans the tweets coming through.
First, write the event hashtag #Irene
Then, identify what the main part of the tweet is dealing with, from the selection of general topics we use. These are: shelter, power, location, road, need, offer, damage, evacuation and so on. Please note that sometimes a tweet will need to be separated into more than one TtT tweet, so that it contains just a specific piece of information. Sometimes general tweets coming through the stream contain more than one thing (eg: “The shelter at 20 Riley street in New York has space for 200 people and pets” could be more than one TtT tweet when it’s rewritten.) Use that word (shelter, power or whichever you choose) as the second hashtag. Consider it to be like a heading. Then straight after the hashtag, write in the information related to that heading. Then you might have a secondary hashtag, which offers a little more detailed information. This tends to be a location, or contact details (we use the heading hashtags of #loc and #con to save space). So, you might have a tweet that is looking like this:
#Irene #Shelter Shelter now accepting up to 200 arrivals, including pets #loc 20 Riley Street, NYC
And then push send. That’s it! Our computers will be able to ‘read’ your tweet, whereas it couldn’t ‘read’ the original one. The computer uses the hashtags to organise the information into cells in a spreadsheet that is updated in realtime as these tweets come through. Then the information in the spreadsheet is translated and mapped, so that the general public can access information local to where they are heading or where they are – or where they know others are. The ‘back end’ of our spreadsheet (all the coding stuff) is shared with agencies and other volunteer organisations such as Ushahidi and Crisis Commons, and they work with us in combining the twitter data we’re collecting with other efforts they have.
Finally, we are also able to include images in these maps. If you’re using your own cell phone, turn on the geo location and just take the pictures and upload them to twitter with the #Irene #photo hashtag, and they’ll be added too. Alternatively, you can use the #location tag and put in where you’ve taken the image from.
The magic is that you don’t have to sign up – there’s no formal boundary to entry, and the learning is super easy. Don’t be worried about ‘getting it wrong’ – we all do – but we have people who are watching the tweets come in and are cleaning them up as they get added to the spreadsheets. It also doesn’t matter if you’re putting through information that might already have been entered – if it’s a double up, we remove the second one, depending upon whether time has passed etc. and the information might be new. Even if you can help out with TtT for a few minutes a day, or a longer commitment, the help makes a huge difference, both to people directly involved in the event and also those who love them but are far away.