Social Media in Disaster Recovery and Response

I’ve always felt at least tangentially the influence of disaster preparedness and recovery in the field of planning, but my usual work hasn’t engaged these topics directly. Sure, if a tornado or other disaster strikes it will be vital to know how a transit system is or isn’t ready: how to evacuate users from the system, how to communicate service disruptions to customers and employees, and how to coordinate recovery.

Fortunately,  I also dabble in social media and its intersection with planning. This led me to a talk here in Washington, DC last month on the uses of social media and citizen science in earthquakes. David Wald of the U.S. Geological Survey presented at the Woodrow Wilson Center as part of their Science and Technology Innovation Program series. David began by reviewing some of the tools that USGS offers, including text and email notifications of earthquakes,

Did You Feel It? is a tool developed by the USGS to improve the mapping of earthquakes throughout the world. DYFI is a web-based tool that asks diagnostic questions of folks that feel earthquakes at their address, to attempt to discern the event’s intensity. Combined with self-reported addresses, DYFI can use this information to create intensity maps by zip code or latitude and longitude coordinates. Reports can be incorporated in developing maps within five minutes, allowing users feedback on how their report changed the map almost immediately. Two typical DYFI maps, showing reports compiled from a recent earthquake in the Bay Area of California, are shown below:

Intensity map by ZIP code


Intensity map by lat/long coordinates

Because the USGS only has a limited number of devices in place across the country to measure earthquakes, this tool provides a useful supplement for tracking these events, especially in places less prone to frequent earthquakes. The number of reports submitted to DYFI has received over 2 million reports from all 50 states; the highest number of reports ever submitted was for the August 22nd earthquake centered in Virginia, when about 190,000 people submitted a report. Without this data, shaking intensity for earthquakes must be estimated, especially where no measurement instruments are in place. Did You Feel It? reports can in fact be the first indication to USGS scientists that an earthquake has occurred, if a cluster of reports at the same time from nearby locations are submitted.

I am especially interested in how this form of crowdsourcing, or “citizen science,” is helping predict earthquakes, but Wald mentioned some useful outcomes of Did You Feel It? for the science of disaster preparedness. Chief among them is the utility of the data to detail the macroseismic intensity of earthquakes; the types of questions asked by DYFI help communicate the hazard level of an earthquake (e.g., Did items fall off your shelves? Was there minor damage to buildings?) instead of the Richter scale numbers we so often hear on media reports of earthquakes. USGS has also learned a great deal about how people perceive, prepare for and respond to risk, allowing better preparation for future events.

In addition to the millions of submissions to DYFI, including narrative reports of an individual’s earthquake experience that can be submitted in a text box, USGS is furthering this effort to involve citizen science by placing inexpensive seismic sensors in individuals’ laptops. Of course, using this type of tool (or social media in general) for earthquake information has its downsides, chiefly high personnel time to analyze the data and ensure its quality. There are also the downsides of ensuring users’ privacy and sifting through much “noise” to get to the true message of how strong the earthquake was. I don’t think this is a reason to abandon the effort, though; the benefits still outweigh these, on the whole.

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