CU-Boulder Researchers to Build Next-Generation Technology to Support Citizens in Emergency Response

August 31, 2009

The National Science Foundation has awarded more than $2 million to University of Colorado at Boulder researchers to take leading-edge investigations on the public's use of social media during crisis situations to the next level of research and development.

The grant to Assistant Professor Leysia Palen and her colleagues in the department of computer science is aimed at developing a suite of specialized mobile and Web applications to help citizens and officials during times of disasters and large-scale emergencies. The four-year project will synthesize and augment citizen-generated information and corroborate it with authoritative sources.

The goal is to make spontaneously generated information by citizens during emergencies more accessible, comprehensible and trustworthy to help officials and people on the ground make safe decisions and coordinate with family, neighbors and officials during times of crisis.

CU-Boulder will receive $2.4 million of the nearly $2.9 million grant. Professor Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine will receive $480,000 to work collaboratively with Palen and her colleagues at CU-Boulder.

The team will study and determine the best ways to integrate information from multiple social media sources to help users assess the context, validity, source, credibility and timeliness of the information. The ability of computers to process the textual information generated by social media and issues of security and trust concerning that information will play a large role in the project, as will knowledge about human-computer interaction, emergency management and implications for national policy.

Palen said the new work is motivated by past research on the special information-seeking skills people demonstrate during emergency events.

"When situations are dire, and the magnitude of an emergency affects a region, we know that people are quite resourceful at doing what they can to survive and to help others," she said. "Today this means turning to online sources to collate information from many places to try to make the best decisions possible."

Palen and her colleagues have conducted extensive research on people's use of Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, blogs and other social networking sites during crisis events and found that these sources generate information that helps people construct "situational awareness" of an event that can sometimes be surprisingly accurate. Their research on crisis events has included hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes, as well as two Middle East wars and campus shootings in the United States.

The newly funded research will include more investigations about how people use social media during large-scale emergency events around the world. The research team will study events that occur in regions of the world where English, Arabic and Mandarin Chinese are spoken, and incorporate these languages and cultural differences into considerations for the new technology.

"It is important that we provide automated ways to check the vast amount of information generated during crises against multiple sources, and align citizen-generated information with official information, so that all responders -- lay responders, professional responders and victims -- are working from a cooperative and shared point of view," Palen said. "This is critical to the future of emergency response."

This view is gaining ground, with new FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate recently expressing his agency's goals of incorporating citizen participation and social media in future emergency response activity. But both researchers and emergency managers realize that the problem is a difficult one. Palen and her colleagues hope that this research will make such a future a practical reality.

Primary collaborators include Mark of UCI, who has studied information exchange by Iraqi and Israeli citizens in wartime; and CU-Boulder professors Ken Anderson, a computer science specialist in Web engineering and information integration; Jim Martin and Martha Palmer, computational linguists; Doug Sicker, a telecom policy and network security expert; and Dirk Grunwald, a systems and security expert.

Industrial and government partners include Collective Intellect, a social media aggregation company in Boulder, and the Emergency Preparedness and Response Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

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