Beki Grinter

Social Media: Iceland, Eyjafjallajokull, Katla, Ash Clouds and Flying

In empirical, European Union, research, social media on April 15, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Yesterday, a volcano in the Eyjafjallajokull region started erupting. And as reports continue to suggest things might be getting worse, and could have significant long term global implications, my thoughts are with those who are directly impacted by the floods. The volcano started sending up a large ash cloud, up to 55,000 ft into the air. Upper atmosphere winds are now blowing the ash towards Europe. As the ash is sinking (now at 18,000 to 33,000 ft), it’s entering the airspace of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway, and progressively others in Northern Europe. Ash and aeroplanes do not mix, instead they get into the engines and can cause them to stop.

Needless to say, social media including Twitter have kicked into high gear as people’s travel plans get altered. I’m attending CHI2010 in Atlanta, and I have heard many discussions about flight delays today among the Europeans who are now stuck in the United States waiting to return home. Flickr has a group that you can contribute: share your images.

I have a few observations.

I think it’s not just that Eyjafjallajokull is difficult to spell, (I would like to hear from native Icelandic speakers whether its easier to spell if you’re familiar with the language), it’s also long, by the time you put that into the tweet stream you’ve got considerably less characters than you do with other hashtags. Interestingly, following it on twitter you see substantive discussion by people I suspect are largely outside of Iceland wondering (like I did) how you say this word. Not all of those discussions are in English, but i am pretty certain that they are all not in Icelandic. Two other hashtags I’ve seen are #ashtag and #icelandic. Both of course suggest a dominant language in social media. This is already well known, but it’s another reminder of how different Internet experiences can be if you’re English-native or not. And what a privilege it is to have a working knowledge of English.

In Iceland it’s the case that the volcano that erupted did more than send up a large ash cloud, it also caused a glacier to melt. People were evacuated. Roads were destroyed. People’s farm lands were destroyed. Blogs are now collating the data, which is a good thing IMO since the twitter stream might be good for propagating news but it’s hard to get a sense of the total picture from bite-size messages. I like this interplay between blogs and twitter. Something similar is going on with the BBC who have a live feed of the impacts of the eruption, including those involving flights.

So what else is consuming the twitterverse is the impact on flights. It’s not just in Northern Europe. As I mentioned it’s also people trying to get from Europe to the United States and vice versa. And then there’s people for whom Europe is the first stop, such as those moving from the U.S. to India or vice versa. And one thing you immediately notice is how dependent we are on air travel for professional and personal reasons. Seeing people tweet their own tales of what they are going through gives the news a sense of “really happening” “real people”, well at least for me.

It’s another reminder of the global migration patterns that exist, in addition to the more short-term reasons people fly. And we’ll soon begin to see the global consequences of this disruption. It’s not just that the Northern European airspace is shut down, it’s now also that planes that were meant to be in one place, and their associated crews, are not where they should be. Soon, other forms of computational technologies will be brought to bear on solving what is I can only imagine a hideous n-way scheduling problem that each airline and airport has to go through to make sense of where the system currently is and how to return it to “normal” as soon as possible. Another consequence of this is that people are stuck in places and needing hotel rooms. And here it’s not that the ratio of people stuck in the wrong place some how works out. Here in Atlanta, we have a large domestic competition (Robotics and school children) coming to town and at the same time extra people who are affected by the ash cloud. You can also see that in the tweet stream.

Perhaps it’s obvious to all, but I find the way that it plays out via social media fascinating. A serious disruption to the infrastructure of global migration has obvious consequences, but they appear as I said to be “really happening” “real people”, well at least for me.

Other images, here, here, and a image of the gradual clearing out of British airspace, which reminds me of the one that occurred in the U.S. in the wake of 9/11.

oh, and this seems meta. While I was putting together this post, Ed Chi was writing about my own updates on the volcano that I made via twitter.

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