Social Media and Disasters

Recently a paper that I wrote was accepted to the International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM). Reading through the schedule for presentations and key notes for the conference this week has filled me with a child-like sense of excitement and enthusiasm for the field that I work in. There is something quite nice indeed about looking forward to talking about research rather than to be going to Brazil for a week.

This post will be a little bit of an introduction to what I will be talking about while at ISCRAM, beginning with a discussion about ‘disaster social media’:

In the past decade social media has played an increasing role in disaster situations, primarily offering a means of two-way, reliable and accessible communication (Huang et al., 2010). Social media use during disasters may be conceptualized into two broad categories: disseminating information and receiving communications, or as a management tool (Lindsay, 2011). The effective use of both categories may lessen the effects of a disaster (Rodríguez et al., 2007).

Examples of social media include Facebook, Twitter, and blogs such as WordPress (which I’m sure you know about what with currently reading it an’ all…). Uses of social media channels during a disaster range from individuals passing on warning information, to governments distributing real-time updates during an event (Blaikie et al., 2014). The effective use of social media in such situations has led to an increased adoption to management strategies, and to improvements in its applications (Huang et al., 2010). It represents a radical change in communications where information can now be accessed from any location, at any time, and with little or no authentication. As such, developing effective disaster communication systems and their integration into disaster management strategies has been a priority for many disaster bodies (Blaikie et al., 2014).

However, the impact of social media in disaster situations is still reliant on a number of underlying factors. Two such factors often fail to be included in existing conceptual frameworks, and subsequently remain overlooked when applying analysis to disaster events (Smith, 2012). It is proposed that the first factor is accessibility to the Web, and by implication to social media, which directly impacts the effectiveness of online disaster management strategies (Smith, 2012). Secondly, the reliability of online information shared on social media has strong links to the level of risk an individual is subject to (Cottle, 2014).

These are the two issues I’ll really be focusing on in detail because they entail a great deal of underlying social factors, which is a particular problem area for a lot of research that create systems and tools to analyse disaster social media. After all, how can one infer anything from social media without first understanding the wider sociological implications?

We need to understand the ‘social’ part of disaster social media.


MOOCs: Sustainable Pride or Pain?

Can higher education be sustainable if it is hosted solely on the Web? Has the paradigm shift in education affected other academic norms? Can you make sense of the silly over-the-top image of books coming out of a laptop? 

Analysing changes the Web has made to higher education may provide the answer.

Traditional face-to-face higher education remains reliant on Cartesian reductionist and Newtonian paradigms [1]. Basically, this means that many higher educational institutions (HEIs are lagging behind companies who operate online when it comes to the issue of a completely sustainable society and education [1]. For HEI’s the problems usually take the form of outdated curriculums, lag time in current research implementation, reduced academic accessibility and limited institutional outreach [1].

So, why has the Web constituted a paradigm shift in higher education? More importantly, is the shift sustainable on a National scale?

The rise of the Web has had considerable cultural and behavioral changes to human societies. It’s resulted in a multitude of new software and technologies which has expanded to include all disciplines. An example of the technological paradigm shift can be recognized by the emergence of MOOCs in 2011 [2].

Originally produced by Stanford University, MOOC’s, or massive online open courses, have become a tautology both in education and on the Web [2]. As you can imagine, that sort of popularity has resulted in a storm of articles and posts debating whether MOOCs may be a phase, whether they may pose a threat to academia, or even whether they have any positive learning outcomes at all [2].

MOOCs are all very well as online education, but where does that fit into sustainability of higher education? In order to answer this we must look at three aspects that make up the paradigm shift in education.

Technological Shift

Education has been undoubtedly influenced by the Web, and in some cases outsourced to it.
The underpinning of the educational paradigm shift is ultimately due to the effects of the Web and the new services, tools and accessibility it offers [3]. Although traditional higher education has incorporated use of the Web, developments in technology and software throughout its existence, the Web can now host an entirely online education [3].

MOOCs as an example of this mark a new era for the ‘outsourcing’ of learning environments, based on a series of technological developments shown in figure 1 below [3]. As a technological platform by design they have been shaped by social aspects, and as a result shape social aspects in return.

Figure 1 – A timeline of adaptive educational technologies beginning in 1990 [1].

Sustainability of MOOCs has been continuously contested, much in the same way changes to traditional higher education have been [3]. In my opinion I consider this a natural societal response – not questioning something that may impact a generation seems a bit stupid. Evidently MOOCs have impacted technological shift in education in a number of ways:

  • Development of new platforms
  • Increased user accessibility
  • New methods of supporting online social networks
  • Increased connectivity
  • Beneficial re-structuring of online learning environments

[3] [4]

Educational paradigm shift has therefore come as a result of shifting higher educational resources to the Web rather than simply as a result of the creation of the Web itself. By extension, MOOCs are not solely responsible for the paradigm shift either, but would not exist without the presence of the Web and fundamental online learning environments and technology. MOOCs as a socio-technical artefacts have many underpinning influences, but do not however have a dominant actor.

So, it’s more accurate to argue that it’s continued development of online resources, technology and integration that creates sustainable higher education. MOOCs are simply a product of this, which have contributed to a cultural shift.

Cultural Shift

Technology itself is used by individuals. As such social aspects shape the use and effectiveness of any given technology.

 In order for technological shift, there must also be a cultural shift regarding the use of new types of online education [1]. There are many debated theories about what these are, and no one single cause that explains why MOOCs took off in the way that they did [2]. Instead there are multiple push and pull factors which include:

  • Change in classroom social structure
  • Free to join
  • Offering a resource which requires nothing in return
  • A structured way to learn about a personal interest
  • 24/7 available content
  • No locational or social barriers
  • A plethora of different disciplines and topics
  • Academic standing from highly rated HEIs

[3] [4]

A dominant cultural theory that intrigued me was that of the Hype curve, shown in Figure 2 below. This speculates that it’s actually our own psychology that hypes up the expectations and benefits of MOOCs and online education when compared to traditional face-to-face study [4]. Online education might be perceived to be better than it actually is simply because it’s something new and different [4].


Figure 2 – A Hype curve proposed to describe the expectation of MOOCs from 2012 onwards [4].

After all, traditional education has employed the use of many online resources such as journals and videos, and technologies such as interactive whiteboards for decades – yet the perceived benefits of these have only decreased over time. I certainly cannot remember having using an interactive whiteboard that worked, or did not have any whiteboard marker on it by mistake.

In order for sustainable education HEI’s must keep learning environments engaging and accessible. Sustainability, then, is in the hands of the people who write curricula.

 Academic Shift

Academics are the architects of the MOOC environment, but are they really pioneers of the educational paradigm shift?

 Much in the same way as traditional education, academics have ultimate control over the learning materials and content of an online course [5]. A significant change with the introduction of the Web is that academics have greater accessibility to resources, more teaching materials, no locational boundaries and significantly less contact/teaching time with participants [5]. As a MOOC participant myself, I’ve often found myself stuck in a situation where I can’t simply email the person who runs the course for clarification. Although many students argue that to be the case even in face-to-face environments.

With such limited contact time and such huge sizes of MOOC classes, there is a question as to whether MOOC classes run by one or several academics can be sustainable in the long run.

 The use of the Web in the technological and cultural shift is beginning to affect academic thought and organisation [5]. In 2011 a study of 184 participants who ran MOOCs were surveyed at the beginning of their course – roughly 40% stated that they thought the course would be successful [5]. This leapt up to 80% in the second survey conducted after 6 weeks [5]. Academics, in a similar way to traditional higher education, are much more likely to tailor their courses further once they’ve been convinced that an online course can be sustainable.

Closing Thoughts

A paradigm shift in traditional education includes the ability to utilize online resources, course accessibility, innovative new learning environments and new technologies. Despite this, there is little significant difference between online and offline education in terms of the above three shifts (technological, cultural and academic), as many of the changes that occur today are a result of continued development in these areas.

MOOCs can never fully substitute a traditional face-to-face education: speaking as someone who is lucky enough to have had partaken in both traditional an online courses.

I believe that there are too many barriers for MOOCs to overtake traditional education, but certainly there is room for it to compliment it, and to be developed in such a way where online courses become more interactive and ‘classroom-like’. As the shifts previously discussed continue to evolve, education will as well. The sheer number of contributors and participants in education is an aspect that is only increasing with accessibility to the Web – and ultimately as long as this continues, there will always be sustainable education.


[1] R. Lozano, R. Lukman, F. Lozano, D. Huisingh and W. Lambrechts, Declarations for Sustainability in Higher Education: Becoming Better Leaders, Through Addressing the University System, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol 48, Pp. 19-19, 2013.
[2] M. Vardi, Will MOOC’s Destroy Academia?, Communications of the ACM, Vol 55, Issue 11, Pp. 5, 2012.
[3] K. Masters, A Brief Guide To Understanding MOOCs, The Internet Journal of Medical Education, Vol 1, 2011.
[4] G. Van Dusen, The Virtual Campus: Technology and Reform in Higher Education, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, Volume 25, No. 5, 2014.
[5] S. Kolowich, The Professors Who Make the MOOCs, Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol 59, Issue 28, 2013.

The Human Face of Big Data

I’m imminently about to start my PhD in Web Science, beginning with the MSc. I’m a big ball of nervousness, excitement and the feeling of actually having the energy to do research that I’ll be interested in. One of the bi-products of this however, is that far more people are asking me about my course.

Generally I give them a brief description of how the web has effected things, and will continue to effect things. Often, this confuses people.

I used to get this a lot with my degree in Geography too. People say things like ‘All I remember about geography is Oxbow lakes LOL, what do you actually study? Colouring?’.

This really grated me for a long time, because geography is the study of how everything relates to one another. By the time I had finished my degree, when someone asked what I studied in particular I simply used to repress an eye-twitch and shout ‘Everything! Geography is everything!’ and then skulk off to get a drink.

Consequently I’ve begun to explain things regarding my new MSc and PhD in a way you would justify learning a maths equation – by giving it a context in which it can be applied.

So here are some excellent examples of crossovers between Geography and Web science that I’m interested in researching further. The first one is human-based, the second one physical-based, and the third is a little bit about my other posts:

‘The Human face of Big Data’ is a term used to describe and explain the human nature behind data. It addresses the growing desire to understand what data can tell us about ourselves, and why we use it in the way that we do. It is commonly used in the study of Social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and how human usage can reveal insights in to real-life trends that make up who we collectively are: our cultures, our mindsets, who we favour or disfavour, and much more.

For instance, analysing billions of Tweets helped two researchers record new insights about public health issues and the way disease is spread. Further to this, they were able to tailor specific health warnings, targeting selected sites that the data indicated to them were the sites of choice most individuals would encounter. As a result of the increased connectivity of our culture, metrics and city structures, people were able to spread information regarding health warnings far faster via social media than they would have relying on previous methods (i.e. by watching the news, or by word of mouth).

Additionally the same analysis and smart application of data can be done with physical hazards as well: change out ‘disease’ for a ‘natural hazard’, for example an earthquake, and the same kind of responsiveness of social media can be recorded to similar effect.

The interesting development with using social media as data streams is that one can ask how and why a population may be affected by these notifications. How can the data be used in prediction systems and 3D modelling of communities. It also lends to the development of maps, virtual realities and other visualisations to adapt to different mediums and scholarly discourses.

Producing the most detailed and applicable results is another substantial task, as one is effectively waiting for a natural disaster to occur in order to collect the data. Once this happens the applications it may be used for are endless, and there are certainly other big data sets other than social media that may help to answer, or build on, the same hypotheses.

If you have read any of my other posts you will realise that there is also a pretty cool crossover between geography and the gaming industry. Again, big data is used in game development in order to analyse, assess and tailor games to target audiences.

However, the gaming industry is one of the leading developers of Geographical Virtual Environments (geoVE’s), usage of real geographic data in game play, new methodologies of recreating virtual city-scapes, combined with ever improving graphics.

Great examples of this can be seen nearly continuously over time as games evolve with softwares. Assassins Creed, Skyrim, Civilization, and Grand Theft Auto to name a few are leading not only in real reflective city-scapes, but also in the virtualization of mapping and other geographic data.

The modification of geoVE’s and VR’s (virtual realities) will be a key-stone in the future prediction of disaster management systems. They aim to do this via transforming the visualisation of a predicted event and tailoring responses to it.

By hosting geoVE’s using gaming platforms and online big data storage, a more accurate and intricate representation of city metrics, human nature and city infrastructure can be mapped out in a way never before achieved.

Certainly, having more information from multiple sources which are able to update instantaneously would be a viable and productive goal in real-time disaster management.

Hopefully this has given you more of an idea of the areas I will be studying, and some of the content that is to come on this blog. Keep Reading!

Featured image Copyright of ‘The Human Face of Big Data’ Rick Smolan 2012-13.