How do people use social technologies to communicate and work together after disasters? And how can those technologies be improved to facilitate that communication?
Those were two of the core issues addressed by Kate Starbird, assistant professor in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington, during her talk at the recent GeekWire Summit. Starbird discussed the emerging field of crisis informatics – the study of how information-communication technologies are used during crisis events. My research looks at the intersection of computer science and social science, specifically at the use of social media during disaster events.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there was a huge social media response. Millions of tweets, tons of photos per second on Instagram, and other platforms that were popular at that time saw a lot of use. Some years later I was contacted by a guy who said, “Hey, I want to talk to you about how Hurricane Sandy was the first social disaster. Can you help me with this?” I said, “Absolutely, I can help you.”
First, Hurricane Sandy was not the first social disaster, all disasters are and have always been social events. Disasters are inherently social, and ever since we’ve had social media people have been using these platforms during disasters in all sorts of creative ways to share information and help one another.
I’ve been studying this intersection of social-computing during crisis events for a few years now, and by social-computing, I mean all of the tools and platforms that help us share information with each other, and not just the tools and platforms, I’m focused on the human behavior that these tools and platforms enable.
I look at them in many different kinds of crisis events: natural disasters, earthquakes, hurricanes, and extreme weather like an inch of snow in Seattle – I know what kind of disruption that can cause around here. This also includes man-made events, which provides a lot of opportunity. There are many things we can now do that we couldn’t before. People can share information with family, friends, neighbors, emergency services even journalists, about what’s happening around them, in real time. Most of us are armed with these mobile phones, and we can use these platforms to share information.
This can help people make better decisions, enhance our situational awareness, help us understand what’s going on in our space of the world, if we can get the information we need. These tools can also be used by emergency responders to share information with their local community in real time, like the evacuation notice that went out during floods in Boulder, Colorado.
Another focus I have is online volunteerism, how these platforms and tools facilitate people coming together to help one-another in new ways.
Haiti Earthquake 2010 – This was a catastrophic event where hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives with thousands injures and displacements in the wake of this devastating disaster. People had a very acute need for food, water and shelter but the already fragile infrastructure of Haiti was totally decimated.
The importance of social media in the aftermath of this disaster can never be over-stated.
Hurricane Irene 2011 – This hurricane was created devastation in upstate New York and Vermont. There was catastrophic flooding that washed away whole towns, roads and bridges. People were trapped, in need of food, water, medical treatment and shelter. With the loss of power family members had no way to connect, in rural Catskill Mountains there was no mobile phone connections.
So some journalists created a live-blog that posted reports of those trapped or missing, information about families and loved ones, question & answers. Thousands of messages were handled by this social media platform.
Hurricane Sandy 2012 – This hurricane devastated New Jersey. One aspect of this event and social media was people trying to find gas for their vehicles during evacuations. So the Twitter hashtag #NjGas was created and used for the search. They would tweet: I just got gas here, the line was long, the price is this, they are price gouging, they are not price gouging, or whatever, and post the info with this hashtag.
The broad question here, is how can we build technologies, including tools, the platforms, and the policies to support resilience during disaster?
Read Article (Todd Bishop | geekwire.com | 10/28/2015)
A key (pivotal) element not included in Kate Starbird’s study is digital literacy. Internet availability and access to social networks is important without a doubt, but knowing how to fully utilize the constantly evolving devices that connect to it and the social platforms, is just as important an issue.
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