Citizen Sensing and Crisis Informatics: Twitter and Disaster Response

by lgraham

In a piece published in May in Smithsonian, “The World According to Twitter, in Maps,” Twitter use in the Western hemisphere was compared to electrification and lighting use. Studies reveal remarkably similar rates, such that a map illuminated by tweets looks very much like a satellite image of artificial light use. It seems ambitious to suggest Twitter will become as ubiquitous as light, but the findings are nonetheless illuminating. Growing global Internet saturation and increasing Twitter usage might tell us a great deal about the relationship of humans and technology, but how might Twitter analysis shed light on our relationships with each other and the environment?

Since it started as a platform designed for cell phone use in 2006, Twitter has had an arguably resounding presence in the world. An estimated 554 million registered users send about 9,000 tweets per second and produce 58 million tweets each day on average. In people’s everyday lives and at the level of national and regional politics in places like Egypt and Turkey, the microblogging service is redefining relationships, invigorating information sharing, and shifting power structures, both online and offline.

The vast number of tweets and other user-generated bits of content online has prompted new approaches to data analysis, including "data philanthropy," which claims to use big data to mitigate crisis and potentially avert social, financial and environmental disasters. In April, the Skoll World Forum brought together world experts on Big Data and its application, including the  president of  non-profit technology company Benetech, who explained:

Massive amounts of data are collected on the pollution in our cities and the changes in our climate. The more we use technology in our education and health systems, the more data we collect about how people learn and what keeps us healthy or makes us sick. These information-centric areas are built for Big Data - data that if better understood could help provide a pathway to maximize our human potential, instead of maximizing profits.

More than just a microblogging service on the Internet, Twitter is a platform for peer-to-peer education, a tool for real-time technology-mediated learning, and a potential gold mine for citizen sensing, which engages citizens as sensors in generating geo-referenced information. Twitter’s open API feature means that tweets are downloadable as raw data. This enables Twitter mapping – a form of research that turns topical tags and tweets into spaciotemporal nuggets that researchers analyze and apply toward myriads of social, political, and environmental situations, including humanitarian responses to natural disasters. Researchers at the Institute of Environment and Sustainability claim ever-growing access to broadband connections and enthusiastic adoption of social media has created “the potential of up to 6 billion human sensors to monitor the state of the environment, validate global models with local knowledge, contribute to crisis situations awareness and provide information that only humans can capture.” Human-machine relationships mediated through sites like Twitter offer optimal conditions for rapid dissemination of useful information, collective thought, and social action.

Crisis Informatics is a research field that combines targeted information extraction and information management with coordination efforts and sensemaking processes. It emerged from collaboration among social media, emergency responders, and computer sciences. In the case of a disaster, such as a flood or tornado, crisis informatics provide knowledge about similar past disasters and response strategies. The clearinghouse of prior knowledge helps first responders predict and manage events as they unfold. Additionally, crisis informatics offers details about the extent of damage and number of fatalities, which enables more focused and efficient emergency medical responses. Mapping projects like GDELT and tools like Twitris enable real-time monitoring and multi-faceted analysis across space, time, populations, networks, emotions, and sentiment. Numbers and locations are important, but data may reveal more than numbers.

Along these lines, recent analysis of more than 2 million “disaster tweets” related to the May 2013 Oklahoma tornado presents an interesting case study. As Patrick Meier of iREvolution details in his blogpost “Analyzing 2 Million Disaster Tweets for Oklahoma Tornado,” research conducted by Hemant Purohit and colleagues at the Qatar Computing Research Institute further blurs the lines between computer science, social science, and humanitarian work. Purohit and his colleagues found 7% of tweets in the first 48 hours after the tornado were related to helping meet people’s immediate survival needs- donation of water, food, and clothing. Certainly, such findings reveal Twitter users’ humanitarian intentions, but they do not reveal whether the people in need actually received the supplies and services or how they fared beyond the initial 48 hours. How the individuals and communities affected by the tornado are doing today are questions for further ethnographic study that would compliment the rich statistical analysis we have and dig deeper into the relationship of Internet and society.

Learn more about Twitter analysis in a study just released by QCRT that looks at the confluence of crisis mapping, citizen sensing, and social media through the lens of citizens’ roles in coordinating crisis response.