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Can You Make Disaster Information Go Viral?

San Diego, Calif., is examining how to make social media work more effectively in emergency response situations.

What role could social media play in effectively communicating information about breaking news such as natural disasters and disease outbreaks? It’s not a new question, but one that lacks an easy answer. Researchers and emergency response personnel in San Diego plan to spend the next four years exploring the topic, and what they find may eventually serve as a model for other communities looking to better leverage social media for disaster response.

San Diego County and San Diego State University (SDSU) recently formed a partnership to research and develop a new social media-based platform for disseminating emergency warnings to citizens. The project aims to allow San Diego County’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) to spread disaster messages and distress calls quickly and to targeted geographic locations, even when traditional channels such as phone systems and radio stations are overwhelmed.

Cutting Through the Noise

The social media emergency response project under way in San Diego is spearheaded by Ming-Hsiang Tsou, an SDSU geography professor who also directs the Center for Human Dynamics in the Mobile Age, one of the university’s Areas of Excellence.

The new project stemmed from an earlier effort. In 2010, Tsou launched a research project called Mapping Ideas from Cyberspace to Realspace, which evaluated different types of online information and how it was linked to real-world activities. And it uncovered some interesting facts about disaster response.

“We found that during disaster events, the information landscape of social media is very noisy,” Tsou said. “The important messages from official agencies such as the Office of Emergency Services were not very visible.”

With the new project, Tsou wants to explore how social media can expand emergency communications.

“We want to know how people disseminate information in different kinds of situations,” he said. “Why does some information go viral and other information doesn’t? By understanding the mechanisms of Internet memes, we hope to apply that knowledge to disaster awareness.”

In September, Tsou was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to support his efforts. The nearly $1 million award over four years will enable SDSU and OES to work together to refine software the county can use to better identify trends, topics and influential messages disseminated through social media during a disaster.

“Social media has become more and more important for our communication,” said Tsou. “We need to study and understand how messages are broadcast, redirected and received by our community.”

The 1,000 Volunteer Approach

A key component of the new project is what Tsou calls “influential social media users.” Tsou and his team are in the process of identifying and reaching out to the top 1,000 Twitter users in San Diego County and asking them to agree to retweet the county’s emergency messages.

“We are changing our approach from the previous passive monitoring of social media to design an active platform for recruiting social media volunteers to accelerate social media communication before, during and after disaster events,” he said. “We want to make sure that the public can receive the most important alert messages from official agencies as quickly as possible and that these critical messages will not be overwritten by other social media messages.”

To compile the top 1,000 Twitter user accounts, Tsou started with followers of the official San Diego County Twitter account

(@SanDiegoCounty) and followers of related media channels, like the local news channels. “These followers already indicated their interest in public safety issues and have the potential to become volunteers for the Office of Emergency Services,” he said.

Tsou will then use social network analysis tools to evaluate the selected followers’ influential powers, such as number of followers, how many retweets have stemmed from their accounts and their social network structures. 

“A complicated computer algorithm will be used to compute the influential index,” Tsou said. “Another criteria is that these volunteers must be within the San Diego region. We will use the location information from the Twitter accounts’ user profile to identify their regions. So if one influential Twitter user is located in New York, we will not include him or her.”

Once the top 1,000 influential Twitter users in San Diego are identified, the research team will develop a mechanism and a platform to invite them (or remind them each time) to retweet important announcements when OES needs to broadcast them.

“These 1,000 volunteers will be mainly the young generation of people in San Diego. They are the future of our community,” Tsou said. “We hope through this project and the volunteer platform, we can encourage these young people to play a more active and important role in our society.”

The Big Picture

OES and SDSU have partnered on other projects prior to this one, most recently coordinating a volunteer team to help augment the county’s Emergency Operation Center by developing GIS maps during emergencies. But OES is also interested in expanding its ability to use crowdsourced information to get a pulse on what goes on during an emergency, and Tsou’s project will help there as well.

“There are a lot of tool sets out there that allow you to see individual things that occur, but you have to use a bunch of different tools to get the big picture of what’s going on,” said Robert Barreras, OES emergency services coordinator. “Tsou had an idea about a social media platform that could aggregate everything and do crowdsourcing during an emergency, and that is something we had been looking into — being able to analyze what’s going on during an emergency and having that situational awareness.”

Barreras said OES recently purchased Geofeedia, a platform that allows users to search, monitor and analyze real-time social media content by location. Now, if people tweet or take a photo with their smartphone and post it on their social media site, the location information is captured.

“Geotargeting is a very important aspect of our project,” said Tsou. “When people tweet, we can actually see where they are.”

Emergency officials will also use geotargeting to make their messages more effective, as officials can direct retweet requests to volunteers who are most likely to impact an affected area rather than deluge the entire county with tweets that only are meaningful for a small part of the population.

But Tsou’s tool also goes beyond basic geotargeting. “Geofeedia does the aggregation of all the social media, but it really doesn’t do the analytical side of it,” Barreras said. “What Tsou is working on will give us a way of figuring out who the individuals are that are leading the message. It will allow us to not only aggregate data but also see from an analytical perspective who is running the conversation, what’s trending, what hashtags are winning out, etc.”

The Right Path

The National Science Foundation grant will enable Tsou to hire graduate students at SDSU (one Ph.D. student and two master’s students). Three other SDSU faculty members (including representatives from communications, public health and linguistics) will also collaborate on the project, as well as two research teams from Kent State University and the University of Arkansas that will work with SDSU on computational models for the project. Some funds will go to organize an international research workshop this summer.

The prototype of the new social media volunteer platform will be built within six months, just as the area’s wildfire season begins. The county is expected to test and use the system throughout its development. Officials within OES are currently offering feedback to Tsou on how it can be tailored to best fit their needs. SDSU and OES will then continue to revise and improve the system over the following four years.

“Tsou has a deep knowledge in this field, and he’s already ahead of the curve in leading us down the right path,” Barreras said. “But if we see something that might be more useful, or if something can be adjusted in a certain way to make it more valuable to us in an emergency management realm, that’s really where the partnership or joint guidance becomes critical.”

County officials also plan to use the new system to monitor social media for rumors and false information originating from other channels, then address those falsehoods succinctly and directly.

“One of the most important things we do in an emergency operations center is to get correct critical information out to the public so they can make better-informed decisions,” said Barreras. “Used effectively, social media could be a very important tool in helping us do that.”

This story was originally published by Emergency Management

Justine Brown is an award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at