Since its launch in 2006 the microblog platform Twitter has become more and more popular. Private persons and organizations use this social medium to interact and communicate about all possible matters. Especially in times of crisis people intensively use Twitter to keep in touch with the rest of the world, so scientists have discovered. Twitterers are sharing their feelings or are retweeting information supplied by official channels. Eyewitnesses are logging their own observations, which could include photos or videos. This behaviour was observed during many crises, such as Pukkelpop in 2011, Haiti in 2010 or the Love Parade in 2010. Disaster relief organizations like the Red Cross use this information to investigate the state of the crisis, the need for relief supplies, or the number of victims.
Organizations concerned with disaster relief at first used social media to supply the public with information and instructions. We now see more and more opportunities to turn this one-way flow of information into two-way traffic: Information supplied by the public could greatly enhance the view on a developing crises for crisis management teams. It is a form of crowdsourcing: With or without being asked for it, the general public is supplying much needed data for information systems.
Stages in a developing crisis
A crisis or disaster typically goes through several phases until it is entirely dealt with. We see that crowdsourcing with social media is especially fruitful when a crisis is being actively repressed. Much needed information like the location of victims, their immediate needs, missing person reports or the state of the infrastructure can be supplied by social media.
After the active phase of a crisis, the affected area and population will go through a phase of recovery. Social media can be used as a data source in that stage too. Crowdsourcing can supply data needed for damage calculations and to assess the needs for physical and psychological post-trauma humanitarian aid.
Whether social media can effectively be used as an early warning system to identify new crises before they are reported through official channels is still under investigation.
Social media as an information source: potential
Undoubtedly there is a huge potential for social media as an information source for crisis management, especially in crises where a large number of people that are capable to use social media are involved. A huge amount of data can be collected in a short time, and members of the public typically are earlier on the scene of a crisis than officials. Furthermore, information shared through social media can immediately be effective as a source for information for the general public. Lastly, data obtained from social media can be used to validate official data: Is the gas cloud really where we thought it would be or do people smell something in a different area?
Social media as an information source: concerns
Although crowdsourcing through social media can valuable source of information in crisis management, some care has to be taken in getting the right information. There is a risk of polluting the crisis management information pool if data from social media are not carefully selected. One aspect is filtering data on relevance. For example, not everything that is being twittered is of relevance for crisis management. Filtering on location and hash tags can help in separating the wheat from the chaff. A further help can be sorting data on reliability of its source.
Using social media in the Dutch national crisis management system
Geodan Research is implementing crowd sourcing for the research project i-Bridge. Two plug-ins provide additional information input from social media.
One of the plug-ins is the Twitter-searcher, which collects data from Twitter. Both location and hash tags are used a filter. Tweets filtered in this way are visible to the crisis manager, who can decide whether the information is important or not.
The other plug-in uses Ushahidi as a data source. Ushahidi is an open source software platform used for the collection, visualization and interactive mapping of information. The software was used in different cases, such as natural disasters, or the Arabic Spring. Ushahidi provides data in a more structured way. For example, it used categories that are of immediate use to a crisis manager.