Twitter service part of disaster communicationsWritten by Staff Wednesday, 25 March 2009 06:37
When disaster strikes, can on-line information sharing networks like Facebook and Twitter be trusted to help spread the word? According to researchers at the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center, the answer is yes.
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Sutton and her colleague Leysia Palen, a computer scientist at the university, have been studying the use of on-line communication networks during disasters since 2007, beginning with the school shooting incident at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech) in April, when an undergraduate student gunned down 32 of his fellow students and professors. According to their research, by the time the names of his victims were released to the public a day later, the on-line community on Facebook had already put a name to each one.
“People on Facebook did their detective work collaboratively,” notes Sutton, explaining that Palen’s computer science lab began monitoring websites within hours of the shooting to create a detailed timeline of both official and unofficial communications. “It wasn’t just a local effort; it was a national effort through the Internet as people started to exchange information about the deceased and the injured.”
The researchers also found that the information posted on-line was accurate. People were so concerned about getting it right that they established their own social norms to verify or disprove information before sharing it, a finding that goes directly against common perception, says Sutton.
“One of the biggest concerns shared by those in emergency management is that there’s going to be a lot of rumor in the information that’s posted through these types of social networks,” she says. “Instead, from what we’ve seen so far, the information is actually self-correcting.”
The second crisis monitored by Sutton and Palen was the outbreak of 20 wildfires in Southern California in the fall of 2007. Again, the researchers turned to news websites and on-line forums to see who was communicating and what they were saying. They also conducted an on-line survey to determine how local residents were using technology and once again they were astonished by what they learned.
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