Social Computing Helps Counties Prepare for Evacuation

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Students in a new "Social Computing" course offered this spring undertook projects to help emergency personnel in two Colorado counties by creating maps of county fairgrounds to aid animal evacuations during disasters.

Two of the projects in the course taught by Associate Professor Leysia Palen supported the research of ATLAS PhD student Joanne White, who uses crisis informatics to understand behavior during incidents such as a wildfire or flood.

"Animal evacuations, whether the animal is big or small, will influence a person’s decision to leave. They either won’t leave at all without their animals or they are forced to leave their animals behind. It's heartbreaking," White says.

During a crisis, evacuated residents typically are invited to take their animals to local fairgrounds for shelter, with care provided by volunteer and emergency management organizations. Available maps, however, tend to be aerial view print-outs which can be blurry and challenging to decipher by volunteers, first responders and evacuees.

The students used an open source mapping tool called Open Street Map to create relevant and useful maps of two fairgrounds in Jefferson County and Elbert County, which reflected infrastructure, resources and traffic flows. They even created icons to denote evacuation areas for small animals and large animals because no graphics of this sort existed.

During last year’s Black Forest Fire in Colorado, White says more than 20 different species of animals were brought to an evacuation site, from mice to yaks.

"These students are technical people looking at social media and technology and how that reflects the human condition," says Palen, who directs Project EPIC, a $2.8M NSF research effort analyzing how social media are used by the public during mass emergency.

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