When disaster strikes social media to the rescue

The Navy has commissioned a private-sector study to explore how new technology can facilitate disaster response.

The Navy that once relied on semaphore flags and coded blinking lights for rapid communications now wants to plumb the depths of social media to see if the 21st-century tools can be useful during disaster or crisis relief operations.

During the past decade, social-media communications have exploded into numerous forms with millions of users. That number is expected to increase to more than 1 billion users by 2012, according to a survey by technology consulting firm Strategy Analytics.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) recently awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Advanced Technology Laboratories to investigate how social media could help during complex crisis situations through activities such as providing first-hand information, assisting with evacuation plans and directing the distribution of supplies.

The contract is minuscule by Tier 1 standards, just $1 million over 24 months.

However, Lockheed Martin officials, who have been examining social media for almost three years, hope the new research will provide a fuller understanding of how to deal with the needs of a crisis-affected population.

“Social media has created a brilliant new mechanism for the transfer of information,” said Peter Vietti, ONR spokesman. “The Navy and the Marine Corps really need to understand social media and how it is used as a communication channel in the context of humanitarian assistance or disaster relief scenarios.”

“In doing so, we hope to be able to maximize these communications channels for crises situations,” he added.

Rapid response

That emphasis could mean more timely responses by military and civilian responders and better care during and after a natural or man-made disaster.

“People use the Internet and social media differently when faced with direct peril or when being good Samaritans after a disaster,” said Brian Dennis, principal investigator at Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Laboratories in Arlington, Va.

During disasters such as the recent forest fires in southern California, people used Twitter more to convey vital information or correct misinformation about the crisis than to report their own activities, he said.

“We’ve seen repeatedly examples of people using these types of media to coordinate their activities in terms of evacuating from a particular area or rescuing people or coordinating the saving of homes and so on,” Dennis said.

Government use of social media also can help facilitate social good, said Rohit Bhargava, senior vice president of strategy and planning at Ogilvy 360 Digital Influence. “A big part of many social campaigns is having strong partnerships between government and the private sector,” he said.

Geoff Livingston, a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s active use of social media to provide crucial information about the H1N1 influenza epidemic.

“They are updating [information on] influenza, clinics, hospitals, organizations across the country weekly, daily, using RSS feeds and their site,” he said.

Livingston called Really Simple Syndication the fastest means of disseminating vital information to the widest possible audience.

“The RSS feed provides an instantaneous update,” he said. “So in disaster situations, when you can’t update every single person at once, you just publish something, and it goes out to everyone using an RSS feed.”

Livingston said anyone who uses any form of social media could receive the information whether it comes through a podcast, tweet or iTunes. “And it’s all relatively easy to set up within an hour,” he said.

Lockheed Martin’s research will take place in three phases, the first being to gather a significant amount of data from social-media use during previous disaster relief activities.

Dennis’ group of about a half-dozen researchers is compiling data from Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Friendfeed, a social-media service now owned by Facebook, that was generated during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, in November 2008 and the street riots following Iran’s controversial presidential election in June.

During the second phase, the lab will use the data to create computational models to accurately predict how social media generates information based on an understanding of the dynamics of a humanitarian and disaster relief event, he said.

That will lead to the third phase: devising situational awareness tools to help decision-makers better understand what happens in disaster environments.

The computational model and simulator will create what-if scenarios, Dennis said. By testing different operational hypotheses with the simulation, planners and responders can determine the most effective ways to communicate with and serve people in disaster areas.

“The simulation could help identify emerging social leaders in the area who could be enlisted to help maintain social stability and ensure equitable distribution of emergency supplies,” Dennis explained. “These tools would give responders additional sensors in the affected environment.”

In addition, the tools could be prototypes for the ONR to develop further so military and government organizations could respond better to disasters, he added.

More studies ahead

Even though those organizations are increasingly being called upon to participate in disaster relief operations, they typically don’t have a solid initial understanding of what’s happening, he said.

“It’s not because the military is incompetent,” Dennis said. More often than not, they must play catch up during crises because they are called on for many different situations and can’t have a complete understanding of the intricacies of each relief effort.

Dennis said he hopes to have the first significant dataset by the six-month mark of the contract. “I think by February, we will be able to say something interesting.”

Lockheed Martin then plans to follow with smaller studies during the course of the two-year award.

“Usually, the technology that we develop for a number of these military laboratories certainly has its genesis" in the Defense Department, said Stephen O’Neill, senior manager of communications and public affairs at Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Laboratories.

“But at some point down the road, whenever that is — midterm, long term, 10 years, who knows? — it very well could cross over into the civilian sector in some sort of application,” he said.

To assist with the initial data collection and analyses, the lab has subcontracted some of the work to the University of Maryland at Baltimore County.

Because the contract calls for research based on human subjects, Dennis said, the Navy and UMBC are being careful to protect personal information that might be in the data. In addition, they are securing the necessary DOD approvals and adhering to all government privacy regulations.

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