It was 3 p.m. on Jan. 7 when Sophia B. Liu got a phone call from her landlady, relaying a reverse 911 message ordering evacuation of the Crestview neighborhood. Within the hour, after Liu had complied with the order, she logged onto Twitter to begin sharing information about the two fires threatening 11,000 homes north of Boulder.
For Liu, messaging on Twitter (a micro-blogging site where users communicate with followers via short, 140-character messages) was more than idle chatter. As a doctoral student in Assistant Professor Leysia Palen's ConnectivIT Lab researching crisis informatics, Liu is something of an expert on the use of social media in emergency situations.
The group has studied the use of blogs, wikis, and Web 2.0 sites such as Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter in the aftermath of wildfires, hurricanes, school shootings, and other tragic events. These peer-to-peer communication tools, although they have shortcomings, have helped people to collect and share information with others affected by a crisis without having to depend solely on the reporting of news media.
"This was the first community crisis that directly affected me," Liu says about her Boulder fire experience, "and since I was a part of this crisis story, I instinctively applied my research and put it into action using social media."
Liu used Twitter not only to document the information she received from the Boulder County website, mainstream news sources, and press conferences, but also to share that information with the Twitter community and find answers to other questions about the evacuation and fire area from those affected.
One resident posted a Google map of the burn area based on his personal knowledge, and others including Liu added annotations, photographs, and video to reflect their own experiences. The same thing happened during the fall 2007 fires in southern California—one of the earliest instances of such activity, their research shows.
Tragedy was mostly averted in the Boulder instance, as firefighters were able to contain the 3,000-acre blaze the day after it started. However, the consequences of many other emergencies have been dire, so the researchers are trying to understand and bolster communication to mitigate tragedy as much as possible. The Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007 was one such event.
Liu and fellow doctoral student Sarah Vieweg went to Virginia Tech to further their research, an experience they described as "harrowing for both of us," but quite informative and groundbreaking for this budding research area. Among their findings is that campus residents had launched an "I'm OK at VT" group on Facebook only 90 minutes after the shootings but before details about the extent of the crime were known. Students also successfully compiled information about victims' identities in advance of official notification through several discussion threads.
Palen's 2005 study in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina showed an interplay between traditional communications, with emergency shelters serving as information hubs, and digital media such as aerial maps used to ascertain the extent of the damage. For many people affected by that disaster, Palen says their first experiences using a computer at all were to find out information about their homes and neighborhoods that they couldn't easily get another way, even long after the initial evacuations.
"When we first started this research, we were looking at the relationship between emergency responders and the people affected by an event," says Palen. "It evolved into what members of the public were doing with technology, but now we're moving back to our original purpose. Our research on peer-to-peer technology use has gotten the attention of federal and local officials, who are now ready to adapt to the new world that digital technology creates."
Palen's group, which includes a mix of computer science and ATLAS (Alliance for Technology, Learning, and Society) students interested in human-computer interactions, is looking at developing new software tools to help improve emergency response. The researchers want to facilitate the positive things about technology and peer-to-peer communications, while dealing with some of the drawbacks, such as the difficulty of determining the reliability and timeliness of posted information.
They envision a software environment that can consolidate, authenticate, and process postings from different online sources using specialized interfaces that offer additional support for emergency responders and members of the public alike. Tools also are needed to identify the most reputable online posters versus those who might be misinformed or who might even manipulate messaging functions to perpetrate violence, as occurred during last year's attacks in Mumbai, India.
Palen predicts that the spawning of so many different media tools will eventually lead back to the commingling of information through new tools that are more convergent. But, she notes, "The dissemination of information is going to be much more egalitarian now. In situations where the infrastructure has not been affected, members of the public often have better information than official sources because they are there in the midst of the event."