Published: Dec. 1, 2009

In June, Twitter awed the world with its potential for breaking news during the Iranian election protests. Meanwhile, the number of users on Facebook has skyrocketed from 50 million to 300 million users in just two years.

As the popularity of online social networking sites increases, assistant professor Leysia Palen of computer science thinks some of the cyberspace chitchat that occurs during a crisis could help save lives. She hopes to develop a way to filter seemingly reliable information from Facebook, Twitter, various blogs and other social media and make it available in one place through a web or mobile application. This cache of valuable information could help officials and citizens make better decisions about how to react in a situation.

The National Science Foundation awarded her research team $2.4 million to develop the program.

“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 help others,” Palen says. “Today this means turning to online sources to collate information from many places to try to make the best decisions possible.”