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Putting social media to work in a crisis

U. COLORADO (US)—Researchers are working to develop customized tools that will capitalize on the popularity of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to help the public and officials share information during an emergency.

Leysia Palen, an assistant professor of computer science at University of Colorado at Boulder, is leading a team of researchers to create a suite of specialized mobile and Web applications that will help synthesize information generated by citizens during emergencies and corroborate it with official sources.

The tools will help officials and people on the ground access and decipher spontaneous updates from the public as a way to make safe decisions and coordinate with family, neighbors, and organizations during a crisis.

Palen says the work is motivated by past research on the special skills people use to seek and share information during emergency events.

“When situations are dire, and the magnitude of an emergency affects a region, we know that people are quite resourceful at doing what they can to survive and to help others,” she says. “Today this means turning to online sources to collate information from many places to try to make the best decisions possible.”

Palen and her colleagues have conducted extensive research on people’s use of Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, blogs, and other social networking sites during crisis events and found that these sources generate information that helps people construct “situational awareness” of an event that can sometimes be surprisingly accurate. The researchers have looked at a wide range of events, including hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes, military conflicts, and campus shootings.

The newly funded research will include more investigations about how people use social media during large-scale emergency events around the world—particularly in regions where English, Arabic, and Mandarin Chinese are spoken—and incorporate these languages and cultural differences into considerations for the new technology.

“It is important that we provide automated ways to check the vast amount of information generated during crises against multiple sources, and align citizen-generated information with official information, so that all responders—lay responders, professional responders, and victims—are working from a cooperative and shared point of view,” Palen says. “This is critical to the future of emergency response.”

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine are collaborating on the project. Industrial and government partners include Collective Intellect, a social media aggregation company in Boulder, and the Emergency Preparedness and Response Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The National Science Foundation is funding the research.

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