CU-Boulder Professor Analyzes Role Of Social Media In Disaster Response And Recovery

Published: July 14, 2008

Social media and technologies that support peer-to-peer communication are being used in increasingly creative ways in the aftermath of disasters by people who are either seeking or sharing information that is unavailable from more traditional sources, research by a University of Colorado at Boulder faculty member has found.

Leysia Palen, an assistant professor of computer science and an affiliate of the CU-Boulder Natural Hazards Center, has studied the ways that people disseminate information in the aftermath of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Southern California wildfires, as well as the recent shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University.

"Web 2.0, or social media Web sites, along with cell phones and other wireless devices, provide a way for large-scale interaction to happen online that is turning out to be very important in these situations," she said. "These communication tools can be useful to members of the public as well as to public officials and response and aid organizations."

Palen received a National Science Foundation grant to study disaster-related communications, a field known as crisis informatics, just a month before Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in August 2005. In the week she spent in the region that September, she was astounded by the role that emergency shelters played in serving as information hubs not only for those hundreds of people in the shelters, but for thousands of others outside the shelters long after the event. Displaced citizens called shelters for information about how to get aid; others called to make donations and to find friends and family members.

"People were improvising in this catastrophe and doing their best to share information under terrible circumstances. Those who could offer help online tried to do that too," Palen said. "It was a clear indication that the information arena around disaster events is expanding. We're much more socially connected through wireless devices, blogs and social networking sites and can participate and get information in many new ways."

After the shootings at Virginia Tech in April 2007, for example, Palen and her graduate students found people on the campus had started an "I'm OK at VT" group on Facebook only 20 minutes after the incident, and they launched a Wikipedia page on the shootings within 90 minutes. Individuals also tried to compile information about victims' identities through a discussion thread in which people were encouraged to share what they knew about the shootings.

"The dissemination of information is going to be so much more egalitarian now," Palen said. "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."

Palen and her colleagues also studied communications during the Southern California wildfires in fall 2007. They found that in addition to the use of social networking, blogging and instant messaging to stay in touch with one another 24/7, affected residents used Google Maps to help each other by quickly updating the progress of the fire and other up-to-the-minute information.

While none of these social media tools were designed for use in emergencies, Palen said many of them have shown to be very useful in such situations. By achieving a better understanding of the way people are using information technology, Palen and her collaborators now can work to design better software architectures and tools and services that can help all those involved in disaster response.

"Technology can both constrain and extend what people can do," she said. "We have to understand how people seek and share information to build better tools so we can reduce the humanitarian impact of future disasters."