Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘crisis informatics’

Furloughs: First Person Experience of Social Media in Crisis

In empirical, research, social media on April 23, 2010 at 9:12 am

On Monday April 19th I was on furlough. I had already written about the volcano and the online experiences I had seen. But that was just 24 hours after the eruption had started (and as the disruption was only beginning to become clear). I was also still at the CHI2010 conference, and so it was before the #CHI2010 became #CHIstuck2010 as people ended up stuck here in Atlanta. It was because there were people who ended up stuck in Atlanta that I had written a blog post, a way to disseminate information about Atlanta. So, I was already beginning to explore the social media in crisis space. But largely as a matter of trying to be helpful.

One of the interesting challenges about furlough is that the Institute requires that I do no Institute business during furlough. So, I was at home. It’s not clear to me what the boundaries of “Institute business” are when you are an academic, but I do enjoy not having to respond to email at the same speed. But, what to do on furlough? Suddenly I had this crazy novel idea, what if I tried to spend the day exploring social media in crisis? No, it’s not scientific but I am sure I am not alone when I say that experience is a good place for starting to think about scholarly endeavours. I am in Interactive Computing, and what is Interactive Computing if it is not the myriad of information generated by social media in crisis. Highly interactive, highly responsive, oh yeah, it’s got it all going on.

So, while GVU/CHI was working on accommodating our new guests, I decided to channel my advisor’s advice, to experience first hand. I would be a citizen journalist, or a computational journalist. What follows is what I learnt.

Experiences from the volcanic frontier.

I would like to thank the Reykjavik Grapevine for great reporting. It’s very sobering to see the pictures of the volcanic darkness that parts of Iceland are experiencing. But I would also learn that it was very valuable to have a range of sources, in English and not Icelandic, that were local to the scene of the volcano.

April 19 was a “good” choice for a furlough day. It was on April 19 that a new question emerged: Has Hekla erupted or not? Hekla is a volcano somewhat North of Eyjafjallajokull it consumed the twitter stream. My notes as follows:

The Twitter stream #ashtag has been very active and full of conflicting reports about whether a second volcano (for smaller but equally confused discussion follow #hekla). Some are saying that RUV are reporting it has, others are suggesting that the camera RUV had pointed at Hekla had been turned towards Eyjafjallajokull to capture images. You can see how complicated viral media like Twitter are when you look at the #ashtag stream. Google News has yet, when I last checked, to pick up any of this (either way, or the apparent confusion now generated). I have absolutely no idea how to confirm this. I thought about turning to the Icelandic state media but I can’t find them because I don’t know a) whether they exist and b) how to google for that in Icelandic, and then also (because I grew up in the UK) the BBC. I’ve now decided that perhaps waiting on Google News might work, seeing how much of the yes/no they pick up. So far, BBC and Google News remain silent, while #ashtag is off the charts in terms of numbers of tweets around this confusion, and MSNBC seemed to pick it up and now seem to have dropped the story (at least the difference between the two times I visited their home page).

Now, just a couple of hours later that meme seems to have passed, Google News and the BBC still remain silent, and a couple of people I see on Facebook have removed their Hekla posts, and it still seems to have disappeared from MSNBC). AShtag is still going strong, but I think it’s calmed substantially from earlier.

Now the Reykjavik Grapevine is advising that Hekla has not blown, but rather the camera pointed at Hekla has been rotated to focus on Eyjafjallajokull.

And now the Huffington Post reports on the initially false twitter reports. Some people on twitter are also discussing how Twitter self-corrected pretty quickly. How good is good enough seems like an interesting question here.

One reason I camped out on the twitter stream, on several tags, was to take information and retweet it to the #chistuck2010 tag which people stuck after attending CHI were following. Initially I was putting it into my blog, but that became increasingly time consuming. It was also a challenge to switch among the various streams, there was so much information coming in so quickly. I felt constantly behind. I started following various twitterers including the airlines, NATS. In fact I was surprised by how many institutions have twitter accounts. Time passed as I worked on trying to sift and filter information and get it to the right place. A substantial proportion was also devoted to deciding that yes that information was correct. So, I now understand the nature of the work, the nature of critical thinking that is required… and perhaps not everyone does critically think, but I was struck by the discussions of information quality and accuracy that I saw.

Other responses to the situation that’s now into it’s 5th day have focused on humour. It’s not just in Iceland that people have been laughing at how hard it is for non-Icelandic people to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull. It’s also in New York: we got it too. Fortunately, one Icelandic person has set the name to song, that helps. Other forms of humour (which I can only assume were partially a stress relief) included some tag lines that were quite popular on the tweet stream.

  • Put bag w/30B euros in unmarked bills by gate of Icelandic embassy in London & we’ll turn off volcano
  • We said send cash not ash
  • The dying wish of Iceland’s economy was to have its ashes scattered over Europe.
  • I’m no volcanologist but has anyone tried throwing in a few virgins?
  • Save the planet? Planet must be saying, “Save yourself idiots, I will be fine”
  • Red moon at night, Vulcanologist’s delight.
  • Just been to Iceland. They have a special offer on Ash Browns.
  • I trust everyone is learning to spell Eyjafjallajokull for this week’s pub quizzes

And then of course people had to generate accounts for the volcanos and the ash cloud.

  • @theashcloud: an account that tweeted :The Ash Cloud is a little worried that because I am not from the EU my dust will not be allowed to settle in the UK”, and later “You think I’m bad. Have you seen Björk when she’s pissed?” and then of course “The Ash Cloud is wondering…is grey the new black?It’s always been my color anyway!”
  • but there was also a competing icelandashcloud
  • (who is apparently a lava not a fighter)
  • (a volcano which has a history of erupting alongside Eyjafjallajokull but is, thankfully, quiet for now)

Another set of responses invoked the Second World War.

Of course this reflects my orientation to the English language tweet stream (although oddly I find 140 characters helps me read French and German tweets also). Dan Snow, a BBC reporter lead a small D-Day like effort to retrieve Britons stuck in France. The Daily Mail picked it up as: “Operation volcano! Navy armada ready to pick up thousands of stranded Britons after France scuppers DIY rescue mission”. But others reported far more personal accounts, including the following reflection on WWII and two CHI 2010 attendees talked about how they met a WWII veteran who had been captured in the Normandy Landings, and was delayed in returning home by 6 months. As they said not only did it add perspective, but they also commented on how they’d shared this with the BBC via their WiFi connection. They shared it with me via Facebook. Our communications networks do make something of a difference.

Another thing I found interesting about the references to WWII was that the lived experience of WWII is increasingly limited. I can’t quite put my finger on why that matters, but I find it curious.

Some of the pictures that have been shared, and commented on, talk about the remarkable beauty in all the danger (and frustration). I include some here: Group 1Northern Lights, Group 2, Group 3.

So, I also asked myself what are people doing? Rideshare is huge. As I tidy this up on April 22, rideshare is still dominating #ashtag and it is an astonishing testament of how many people are displaced at this time. And of course, there’s also the life styles of the rich and famous approach to solving the problem. John Cleese became visible for hiring a taxi home from Norway. And then I saw this on the tweet stream:

There’s a Barcelona taxi outside Gare du Nord in Paris. Someone paid a lot to get here

I said before that this really highlighted how interconnected we are. I followed reports about taking an Atlantic ship home, the Queen Mary 2nd. But the next transatlantic voyage 4.22 is already sold out and the waiting list has more than 1000 people on it. For some reason I’m under the impression that cargo liners can some times take passengers. And then there are the reports of how hard hit industries who rely on air freight are. Kenya’s farmers have been severely impacted by the European flight ban. And because major hubs for international air delivery are located in Germany and France, so the notion that you can get world-wide delivery of items quickly has also been turned on its head. I apologise if this seems like a statement of the obvious, but I can’t help being reminded again of how disruption reveals so much about the silent and invisible work that infrastructure does for us. The airlines play a central role in this. I used to know someone who studied air cargo movements and the ICTs that make this possible, I think of him and Susan Leigh Star again as I write this post. Another person who sums this up well is Peter Greenberg. As did Al Jazeera in a thoughtful report about how we expect what is not local.

And while many are not benefiting, demand for teleconferencing systems has gone way up. Also, environmentalists note that the amount of CO2 that the volcano produced is less than the amount saved by the cessation of flights.

For others it’s an educational opportunity, to discuss Iceland’s volcanoes. Ars Technica has a nice piece. Important to know is that Iceland is not a subduction zone, i.e. one plate not moving beneath another, which is the situation on the West Coast of the U.S. Rather, and I think this is correct, it’s where two plates are moving apart. Look at terrain view of the Atlantic Ocean and you see a long spine of mountains that are roughly in the middle of the Atlantic. Most of them are under the water, but HELLO ICELAND.

And so that’s what I saw and experienced.

Twitter and Earthquakes: Haiti, Chile, and now Baja California Mexico

In C@tM, computer science, empirical, HCI, research, social media on April 4, 2010 at 9:52 pm

As many of you know there’s been another large Earthquake, this time in Baja California Mexico. Original estimates were that it was a 6.9 magnitude earthquake (it has been revised to 7.2 by the USGS and I read reports of 7.4 from Twitter now). I was in Irvine when Northridge occurred, so first and foremost and as always my thoughts go out to those who went through it.

It’s inevitable that comparisons will be drawn. They were between Chile and Haiti’s earthquakes, the difference in responses and so forth. Hopefully, if one thing good can come out of a large earthquake is that it teaches us what we need to respond better and more effectively to the next one.

I have a smaller question, which focuses on the role of social media, I’ve blogged about my perceptions of the social media use in response to the Chile earthquake here. I’m finding it harder, personally, to find the streams on twitter associated with this latest Earthquake. Interesting to me since it happened to be felt in a place that’s very technologically enabled, Southern California (reports of tall buildings swaying in San Diego for example).

So my questions are as follows:

  1. How do the uses of various media streams, facebook, twitter, etc… vary according to the different earthquakes? I know that my colleagues at Colorado are working to try and unify the syntax of the responses to aid in search and rescue, but I’m also curious about the volume of responses and the mediums used. Why? Because I think we can understand the cultural differences in social media uptake through these sorts of events, and I think that’s not just an important and interesting research question, but also a crucial piece of the puzzle for understanding how to respond.
  2. Are there differences in how people use them? Again, turns on cultural concerns. I know we have a strong focus on the basics. Where are my friends and family? Where can I get food and water? What is the whole situation? But, what if any completely local responses are important? I recently watched a program that focused on recovery efforts in Haiti and included discussion of the role of voodoo leaders in shaping some people’s understanding of what had happened. I know what you’re thinking, yes, it pertains to some of the research that Susan Wyche does. Yes, that’s true, but it’s also important to understanding how to frame response, who might be involved, what the parameters of culturally appropriate action and interaction are… and surely that’s got to matter.

I am sure that there are better and more questions to ask. These are mine as I watch a few twitter streams counters go up, but so slowly in comparison with Chile. Of course it was said then that Chile had really taken to twitter, and now just from my sample (I sampled hashtags I could find, but of course that includes at this point several hundred different individuals and institutions…).

And so my thoughts are mostly with the people of Mexico and California. But my thoughts are also with the people of crisis informatics and my colleagues in Colorado. They have so much to do, so many possibilities, and why do I think also a sleepless night tonight while they gather data and begin their process of tweaking the tweet once again.

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.

Haiti, Social Networks, and the Power of Critical Thinking

In empirical, research, social media on January 13, 2010 at 11:51 pm

The earthquake in Haiti is a terrible, timely reminder of the power of social networks.

The BBC is not only reporting about Haiti, but also about the work that social networking technologies are doing. Tonight they highlighted troylivesay who is tweeting from Haiti. And I’ve seen messages go past on facebook all day with information on how to donate by SMS and the WWW to relief efforts. I also heard from a colleague today who is on a mailing list that’s discussing how to most effectively get technological aid (most immediately repairing the mobile network). It is easy to see the power of social networks in emergency/disaster response (Leysia Palen’s work on this is a good read in the area).

But the BBC also reminded us to be critical. I don’t mean negative, just thoughtful. They showed a picture being circulated as earthquake damage in Haiti, but it was in fact damage from an earthquake in Japan. Perhaps that’s not terribly important in the end, but I think the point is well taken in understanding the power of social media.

It’s very rare that technologies are good or bad, usually they have mixed and far more interesting outcomes. Today, as we process information about Haiti, we can make donations, but are also asked to take reports and synthesize the information, and create a version that balances the best of what social media provides (real time, multi-faceted reports, perhaps in the face of an absence or a block on official reports) with the power of traditional media which is a guarantee of a certain set of reporting standards on which they rely for their own continued integrity and success (alongside their own political/social leanings of course).

If you want to donate (taken from social media) but checked by traditional media Fox News reports that these are valid sites.

Text “YELE” to 501501 to donate $5 to
Text “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to American Red Cross. are working with Mercy Corps

My thoughts go out to those who are involved and also to those who have family and friends in Haiti.

Update: another cautionary tale