Social media is becoming a primary source of information during disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes. In an effort to more efficiently utilize social media data for situational awareness and emergency response, the U.S. Navy is funding a software prototype to crowdsource situational awareness, called Crowd-SA.

The prototype is currently in an early developmental stage -- a Phase 1 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract. The Navy selected Modus Operandi to develop the software, and if it is green lit, it may be developed into a multi-million dollar project. Eric Little, vice president and chief scientist with Modus Operandi, said the intention is to eventually transition the program to the Department of Defense.

Little explained that since people act as remote sensors during a crisis, data like tweets, photos and posts on social media platforms could be crowdsourced from areas impacted by a disaster. Social media data, then, could help multi-headed command centers get a better grasp of the magnitude of a disaster and respond accordingly.

“The critical, basic need in a crisis situation is relevant, timely and accurate information, filtered to present the most pertinent data to the decision-makers,” said Teresa Nieten, a research scientist for Modus Operandi. “ … The Crowd-SA system could ultimately act as a ’first alert’ capability that would indicate an upcoming problem or crisis well in advance of the typical news and intelligence channels.”

The idea is to extract data from various social media platforms relevant to a disaster in progress.  Once information like specific locations, street names and specific buildings affected by a disaster are extracted from social media platforms and channeled through Crowd-SA software, emergency responders at the command center can more effectively respond to the crisis.

“We are taking the social media information which is going to be creating a very large data set of different kinds of feeds,” Little said. “We are extracting information out of that, putting it together into a common operating picture so that now a commander has more sensor data available to him or her.”

Crowdsourcing Leveraged by FEMA

But the Navy isn’t the only entity looking at how to harness social media data for emergency response. Federal agencies like FEMA are also leveraging crowdsourcing technology to more efficiently respond to a crisis. Recently, FEMA released an updated version of its crowdsourcing app, which is now capable of uploading GPS-tagged photos from a disaster area to display on a publicly-accessible map, said Derek Werthmuller, director of Technology Innovation and Services at the Center for Technology in Government.

Internet crowdsourcing technology is relatively new, but recent progress indicates that it can be of real value in certain situations, he said.

“There isn’t a definitive crowdsourcing toolkit available yet, so as new uses and requirements develop based on past experiences, new custom crowdsourcing applications will need to be built,” Werthmuller said in an emailed statement. “With its vast resources, the military has been on the forefront of many innovative technologies, and there is precedent to expect that whatever the U.S. Navy develops in the area of crowdsourcing technology could very well greatly benefit and be leveraged by emergency responders.”

The U.S. Navy was not available to comment on this story.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.