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.


Society and the Web

I recently read a little short science fiction story entitled ‘A Mild Mannered Uprising of the Dead’, which was recommended by someone in my department. In the story the dead are able to communicate and live on through online systems, run by a social media company called

Their online existence is facilitated by the development of a virtual environment in which each deceased person may purchase and furnish a house or dwelling. This is done via the medium of their living relatives funding the deceased with Teshie dollars (similar to bit-coins).

The concept of ‘ghosts’ interacting and communicating with the living through a virtual reality comes across as simple and almost obvious to the reader. The notion of extending social media just one step further seems inevitable within the story. This is emphasised by the very ‘human’ description of the processes, and the explanation of the ideas published in media from the developer, Quartey.

The story uses many forms of narrative, including media exerts from announcements and developments of the company, to personal complains and conversations of the ghosts and their living relatives. The story however, is focused on the ability of the human race to adapt and utilise the technology around them to change social constructs, and to change the perception of people using it.

As the dead register their complaints they begin to call out the moral corruption of the living, name names who have committed wrongs, and highlight the fact that human nature is now so thoroughly centred around greed for money when it should focus on improving citizens lives., as a medium for well-mannered ghost complaints about the state of the economy and governmental dealings, inadvertently caused a revolution that would not have worked anywhere else. It’s summed up by “giving shape and structure to those family ties and turning them into strong weapons of shame.”

I cannot help but wonder, is this the future of society and the Web? Will we be able to live on through the personalities that we sculpt out for ourselves in the online world. Will these even take on more dimensions and subtitles as social media develops alongside it?

As more people are becoming digital natives in our day and age it seems rational to predict new terminology for such times. Digital migrants will eventually become a minority. Natives will be gradually overtaken by those who are exposed to the online world even earlier. Web 3.0 will raise the next generation, but what shall they be called?

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.