In September 2013, Boulder was inundated by flash flooding. In Leysia Palen’s neighborhood, residents pulled together to face flooded streets and basements. Even the children of the neighborhood joined in the work and camaraderie.
On top of all this, Palen was working remotely with her CU graduate students and colleagues to study how the Boulder community was responding to the flood. Team members were capturing photos of flood damage, observing law enforcement agencies and overseeing the automated collection hundreds of thousands of flood-related tweets from the region.
Palen and her CU colleagues are pioneers in a field called crisis informatics. Working around the world, they combine cutting-edge data collection techniques and on-the-scene observations to understand how people react to disasters. Now, a disaster was close to home.
Combing through the collected tweets from the Boulder region, Palen’s team pinpointed pictures and reports of road damage. Using those locations, they directed engineers who mapped where and why the roads had failed.
Palen’s work is part of the field of information science, which looks at how people interact with data and use it to produce things of value. “Information is the basic infrastructure of our digital society,” Palen explains. “We need to educate a workforce that can work with data in any number of applications.”
“Data is the new ground zero for inspired ideas for commercial and social enterprise.”
- Leysia Palen
For instance, the health care field is better able to track disease trajectories, advertisers use data to understand audiences, journalists use data visualizations to illustrate their stories and product designers study how people interact with data to build better digital interfaces.
From her earliest days in college, Palen was interested in how people interact with computers. “At first, I was studying computer science which I love, but I wanted more interdisciplinary training in what were then known as the “human factors” of technology,” she recalls. As one of the earliest students in the cognitive science department at the University of California San Diego, she used both social and computer science training to understand how pilots in commercial airliners analyzed and shared critical safety information during flight. “I came to appreciate that people make sense of the world in creative and adaptable ways,” she says.
Now, as founding chair of CMCI’s new Information Science department, Palen has hired faculty members who are trained to treat data as an object of study itself, to approach a wide range of problems. How, for instance, can nonprofit organizations use data to improve their work and make a bigger impact on society? How should social media companies handle the pages and posts of people who die? What happens to privacy on the internet, and how should copyright be addressed? “Together,” Palen says, “we have a real chance to remake information science in a way that matters to a wider audience.”