Graduate student looks at social media use in times of crisis

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Sophia B. Liu

Computer Science

Sophia B. Liu, whose research focuses on uses of social media in times of crisis and how concepts of history are evolving, is the second student to earn her PhD from the interdisciplinary ATLAS Program in Technology, Media, and Society.

Her dissertation, “Grassroots Heritage: A Multi-Method Investigation of How Social Media Sustain the Living Heritage of Historic Crises,” which she successfully defended in April 2011, investigates the socio-technical practices emerging from the use of social media and how these practices help to sustain the living heritage of historic crises.

“In the networked information age, it is critical that we examine socio-technical phenomena through an interdisciplinary perspective,” Liu said. “The impact of information and communication technology is affecting all parts of society that goes beyond traditional disciplinary borders. The ATLAS PhD program fills an important gap by encouraging students to weave together knowledge from multiple disciplines of their own choosing.”

Liu was a research assistant in Leysia Palen’s Connectivity Lab and was on the Project EPIC research team, housed in the human-centered computing area of the Department of Computer Science. Palen, a computer science professor, served as Liu’s advisor.

“Dr. Liu’s work breaks new ground in how we think about heritage in the digital age,” Palen said. “Her accounts and insights on the use of social media to resurrect memories of prior disaster events are rich and moving, and will transform the way one thinks about the role social media plays in creation of collective memory.”

Liu has concentrated on research in the field of crisis informatics and examines how social media are used in times of crises, both during and after the emergency.

She conducted crisis-related quick response research, spending a week on-site after the 2007 Virginia Tech school shooting, and online during that shooting, the 2010 Haiti and Chile earthquakes, the 2010 BP oil spill, and the 2010 Boulder fires. She also experienced first-hand how social media were used during a brush fire near her Boulder home in 2009. For her dissertation, Liu investigated the social media presence for 111 crisis events that occurred between 1960 and 2010.

Palen’s Connectivity Lab and Project EPIC research team is a multi-disciplinary, multi-university, and multi-lingual research effort investigating the evolving role of information and communication technologies (ICT) in emergency and disaster situations, with a particular focus on information dissemination and the implications of ICT-supported public participation on informal and formal crisis response.

A 2006 National Science Foundation Early CAREER grant entitled “Data in Disaster” and a $2.8 million NSF grant in collaboration with the University of California, Irvine, entitled “PROJECT EPIC: Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis,” also support the researchers in Palen’s lab. Other ATLAS PhD students working in the Connectivity Lab are Casey McTaggart, Kate Starbird, Sarah Vieweg, and Joanne White.

Liu entered the ATLAS PhD program when it started in 2006, and was awarded a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship for a proposal titled “Public Expressions: Peer-to-Peer Communications in Response to Crises.”

She received her bachelor’s degree in social science, specializing in research and analytical methods with a minor in information and computer science and in digital arts at the University of California at Irvine. She also studied abroad at the University of Sussex, England, taking geography and cultural studies courses.

After earning her PhD, she was offered a postdoctoral position with Climate Communication, directed by Susan Joy Hassol, and will work on projects that strategically use social media to communicate information about climate change.

>See video of Liu's dissertation defense

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