Twitter Speeds Up Real-Time Disaster Response


By Charmaine Caparas

If you still don't believe in Twitter, then this new finding could change your mind: Twitter can save lives!

According to a recent report conducted by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, social network Twitter has played a key role in some of the most destructive natural disasters in the world including the Japan earthquake in 2011 and the monsoon rains in the Philippines in 2012.

Many of these disaster-related tweets were issued by local and national news media, but surprisingly, a good number of tweets also came from regular citizens, updating others with useful information. People living in the disaster-affected area sent out tweets to inform people of their situation: how high was the flood, how many people were missing, or how if any of their neighbors were trapped.

Twitter then became a major communication channel for citizen reporting.

The study underscored that the frontline of humanitarian action has always consisted of communities helping themselves before outside aid arrives. But, modern communications are shifting paradigms on how people interact with each other in all spheres of life, particularly during times of emergencies.

Local governments, private sector and aid organizations are slowly opening up to the use of technology such as Twitter to access real-time information from the citizens themselves. This enables the government as well as humanitarian aid workers to respond to emergencies with more speed and greater sensitivity.

But, as Twitter becomes a widely used humanitarian communications tool, the challenge now comes down to filtering through the millions of disaster-related tweets to find which ones are relevant and which are not.

Vulnerable communities are becoming more and more the source of big data, which they share through social media platforms like Twitter. Handling this huge amount of data manually will take a lot of time and resources, more so if the content has to be processed in real-time.

As a response to this challenge, the Internet Response League (IRL) was recently launched for online gamers to participate in supporting disaster response operations. Online gamers already spend millions of hours online every day and could easily volunteer some of their time to process crisis information without ever having to leave the games they’re playing.

For example, if a World of Warcraft gamer has opted in to receive disaster alerts, a small box will appear on the screen, telling them of the disaster, with an option for them to help. If a gamer accepts the invitation to join the Internet Response League, they’d see the “Disaster Tagging” screen, where they can tag as many pictures as they wish by clicking on the level of disaster damage they see in each photo. Gamers can exit the disaster tagging area at any time to return directly to their game.

Each picture would be tagged by at least three gamers in order to ensure the accuracy of the tagging. That is, if three volunteers tag the same image as “Severe”, then we can be reasonably assured that the picture does indeed show infrastructure damage. These pictures would then be sent back to IRL and shared with humanitarian organizations for rapid damage assessment analysis.

This follows a similar humanitarian response done by the UN during Typhoon Pablo in the Philippines last year. The UN asked volunteers to tag images shared on Twitter and note if those images actually captured the damage caused by the typhoon.

In Pakistan, Karachi residents experienced the first spell of monsoon rains on Saturday, bringing the city to almost a standstill. Thirty percent of the community were without electricity and potable water, forcing residents to move. And in just over the weekend, officials said at least 45 people died from the floods. With about 30 million internet users in the country, it's not surprising that citizen disaster reports were posted via Twitter, with the hashtag #Karachi.

Indeed, Twitter citizen reporting has enabled the rise of a new way of information management, traditionally given only to technical experts. The increased reach of communications technology means life-saving decisions can be made more quickly and perhaps, more accurately. Humanitarian aid has to adapt to this change by creating opportunities to harness the people's information dissemination capabilities, enabling them to help their own communities in the process.

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Charmaine Caparas is a communications specialist for IOM