How social media can save you from natural disasters

Consider that tweets move faster than earthquakes, almost as fast as the speed of light in fact, and you realise how and why technology could have a powerful role in natural disaster management. Instagram’s CEO was recently quoted as saying there were “10 pictures per second being posted with the hashtag #sandy”. It’s no surprise then that the 80 million subscribers to the mobile app used it as a go-to informative tool during last month’s powerful storm Sandy that caused devastation through much of the mid-Atlantic.

Following Sandy, there have been a series of hackathons at MIT where around 30 volunteers have been using communication technologies to bring relief; by providing records of hotel availability, gas maps,  hospital statuses, and phone numbers. They also assess the requirements of first responders like Red Cross and shelters for the displaced. These hackathons produce applications that automatically call survivors and can check whether phone or electricity service has been re-established. A map of Manhattan before and after Sandy overlaid with the location of foursquare check-ins shows the effect the hurricane had on people’s movements in the city.

Recovers.org  is a preparedness platform used to inform town members, organizations and others in case of natural disasters helping them manage volunteers and fund raise. The co-founder of the site, Caitria O’Neill makes a strong case for big data’s power to save lives through effective data sharing. In the same way, Google’s CrisisMap has been a source of information for many people inside and outside affected regions, showing potential impact areas for power outages and available gas stations during fuel crises. On a more personal level, technology provides a powerful tool for people to tell their stories about natural disasters. StoryLine is one such collaborative documentary system where users can submit their stories in many ways including by calling or sending a text or picture message.

The biggest difficulty in technology-enhanced crisis management is the provision of infrastructure. Where affected residents are without electricity, broadcasting and receiving information is difficult. New York’s WNYC radio station has overcome this to a certain extent by initiating successful crowdsourcing projects keeping radio listeners informed by following people’s calls, local citizen journalists and tracking online conversation in real-time.

These examples of technology driving crisis management have spurred much enthusiasm around creating effective mobile and online applications as well as solving infrastructure issues in the hope that the potential of these collaborative, open projects can be harnessed more fully in the future.

About Anna Zawilska

I am reading for a DPhil in Computer Science concentrating on technology and education. My research interests lie around the intersection between technology and social issues.