During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Houston residents affected by the devastating storm used 140-character tweets to share information, comfort and sometimes even confusion. Led by Professor Leysia Palen of the CU Boulder College of Media, Communication and Information, researchers analyze social media crisis informatics to shed light on how digital technology shapes disaster response. The goal is to help improve emergency communications before major weather events.
“It is important that we understand that social media is used for all sorts of purposes, because people don’t necessarily tweet with the intention of helping aid organizations,” Palen said. “Often, they are simply talking to their friends, unaware they are being observed for other purposes.”
A pioneer in the field of crisis informatics, Palen traveled with students and emergency personnel during the 2013 Colorado floods, collected tweets in real-time during the 2015 Nepal earthquake, and evaluated how digital maps helped or hindered aid workers after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
I’m interested in the nature of human cooperation and coordination. How does it happen? How does it fail? And what can we do to make it better?” –Professor Leysia Palen
Now, she and her students are scanning tweets from the 2017 hurricane season for a project designed to make forecast images easier to understand for those in danger.
Digital technology enables people to provide a voice once reserved for government officials or media describing the scene or seeking help. Tweets also show confusion about what to do in response to a forecast, or expressions of fear and concern.
Information gleaned from these tweets can help forecasting agencies improve their images. Palen’s collaboration with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) will provide results that can be communicated directly to the large weather community. With six of her PhD graduates engaging in crisis informatics research and emergency response teams using that research to inform their work, the field Palen founded makes critical contributions to emergency management.