Beki Grinter

Chile Earthquake

In research, social media on February 27, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Before I say anything else, let me begin by saying that my thoughts and hopes are with the people of Chile who now struggle to recover from their Mag 8.8 earthquake and the significant aftershocks that continue to exacerbate the situation.

UPDATE 2: Google gets involved… search to coordinate seeking.

UPDATE: Friends are safe and well — and how did I find out, via Facebook. Also, now seeing another wave of social media, pictures being collected and recomposed. It’s an ever changing complex landscape.

I have colleagues at the University of Colorado who study citizen-generated social media responses to earthquakes. They call this work crisis informatics, and in the wake of the Haiti Earthquake encouraged people to “tweak the tweet” to help provide as much information as possible in a coordinated way. One of the challenges is that citizen responses are individual in nature (focused on what they’ve learnt, who they’re searching for, where they’re located etc… but there’s a significant utility to having that information aggregated so that it’s more shareable across social networks — potentially you could connect people who don’t know each other but know something about the same person, and of course the population trends matter, where are things immediately worse… etc…). And given the time pressure to respond, well you get the point.

I’ve written before about how social media are not limited to “trite” uses. How they can in fact be a part of a story about Computing for Social Relevance. But the emergence use of Twitter around Chile also shows how complex their use is to understand, and how much more there is left to do to be able to a) tell the whole story, what is the full use of these technologies for disaster response, what works what does not work. These are not just important research questions that are currently difficult to answer, but imperative for agencies who seek to use these media in emergency and disaster response (and there are a lot of agencies that do want to use these media).

Some of the challenges. Volume. Since writing this post I set twitter on a search for Chile or #Chile. That’s generated 15000 posts in about 30 minutes. This of course does not include the CCChile thread which is also producing a traffic (although my unscientific test of leaving both searches going suggests that the Chile thread is more active). Twitter apparently is widely used in Chile (something I’ve learnt on twitter this morning since I started writing this post) so perhaps this is particularly high volume traffic, but since the people of Chile are also without communications this is likely the response, at least initially of people outside Chile, focused on people who are there.

And that makes it just a little more personal for me, as I think about two friends of mine from graduate school who told me via facebook about 14 hours ago that they were leaving Western Argentina, quite close to the quake zone, but from the maps not in a substantial shake zone as best I can tell, to head to Easter Island where a tsunami is warned.

One of the Hawaii subthreads, associated with Action News is reporting that there have been runs on petrol in Hawaii, and that the mayor of the big Island is asking people not to use the telephone for anything other than emergencies. This is the @ActionNEws510 thread to which the HawaiiRedCross twitter account is also now reporting. By contrast the main Hawaii thread, which I also started informally tracking has received about 1400 tweets in the time it took me to write this paragraph. I note this because right now they are in a preparation for potential tsunami mode, so their communications infrastructure is still up and running. Another aspect of all of this then is if you have a type of advanced warning what can you do with it? Also, what type of mis-information gets spread.

Another aspect of all of this is where do you find the information? I found a piece of useful information about Hawaii. They expect the time that the tsunami will hit to be 4:05pm Eastern Standard Time, which is 11:05 am Hawaii time (I am curious how they can be so precise) information that comes from the Pacific Tsunami Warning center so that sounds pretty reliable. But it’s not on the Hawaii thread. It’s on the broader Pacific Tsunami or Tsunami thread which in the time it took me to write this paragraph generated about 600 new tweets.

I’ll stop here. I now actually want to focus my attentions on Easter Island since I am concerned about the people who I happen to know who have gone there. I am sure they’ll be fine, but they are not online, and I just want some reassurance. But, this is an unfortunate example of not only the power of social networks, but the complexity of those networks. Here are a lot of people who are trying to be helpful, who have taken a media that might at other times be playful (and where the lack of structure might contribute significantly to the delight of the experience) and turned it into one that’s trying to disseminate information, provide assistance. And it’s very very very hard to understand what’s going on, let alone how to shape the experience so that these people can be the best that they want to be, to really get and give what they are clearly trying to do. To do this requires basic research, the type of Computing research that my colleagues at Colorado (and UC Irvine) are engaged in. Computing for practice, it really matters.

  1. […] Chile Earthquake « Beki's Blog (there's An Original Name) I found a piece of useful information about Hawaii. They expect the time that the tsunami will hit to be 4:05pm Eastern Standard Time, which is 11:05 am Hawaii time (I am curious how they can be so precise) information that comes from… […]

  2. Chilean Red Cross is also providing information, advice, and requesting support. Their feed is also re-distributed via national media outlets like La Tercera (one of the major newspapers)

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