Canadian Security Magazine

Twitter service part of disaster communications

By Canadian Security   


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.

“Social media is going to revolutionize the way we communicate during a
crisis,” says Jeannette Sutton, research co-ordinator at the Natural
Hazards Center and guest speaker at the upcoming World Conference on
Disaster Management
, to be held in Toronto, June 21-24, 2009. “Public
officials can’t stop it. They can’t control it. So the best they can do
is to figure out a strategy so that they can start interacting with
it,” she adds.

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

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.

“The public perception was that the government was putting out
misinformation,” reports Sutton. “People were sharing information
on-line because they felt they could provide a more accurate picture of
what was going on.”

The wildfire disaster was also one of the first instances where Twitter — a free social messaging utility that uses micro blogs (messages of
only 140 characters in length) — surfaced as a popular communications
tool. Postings on Twitter are called “tweets.” When a second user takes
an original tweet and forwards it, it’s referred to as “re-tweeting” —
a process that enables a very fast flow of information between mobile
devices as well as computers.

“The people who were familiar with Twitter became an information hub
where they were receiving information from people and pushing it out
through their Twitter network,” explains Sutton. “It became a kind of
broadcast mechanism at the local level.”

As part of her current research, Sutton is examining the use of Twitter
during the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash incident in December,
2008, when a coal mine sludge pond broke and flooded the valley.
Although it’s too early to talk about results, her message to attendees
at the World Conference on Disaster Management will be clear: social
media is here to stay which means the face of disaster communications
is changing.

“Disaster communications used to be very top-down, hierarchical and
linear where public officials and experts were the one who pushed the
information out,” she says. “Now we have these new kinds of citizen
communications tools that are decentralized, flat and lateral, creating
the potential for a brand new way of communicating altogether.”

Groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the
Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are already working on ways to
actively use social media to reach people and Sutton hopes to see
emergency management authorities follow suit. “It’s no longer top-down
communication; it’s communication where the public has to be a part of
the conversation,” she says. “It’s happening whether we want it to or

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