Last year in Oxford, England, at a TED Conference—a gathering where innovators share ideas—presenter David McCandless, author of Information is Beautiful, showed the audience a traditional dual-axis graph covering the 12 months of the year. It depicted a metric trending upward during springtime, then plummeting to zigzag steadily through the summer months before climbing upward toward the December holidays. The data: status changes and updates from social networking site Facebook that indicated dating breakups, from “spring cleaning” to the safest day of the year to be in a relationship: Christmas.
“There’s a titanic amount of data out there—unprecedented,” McCandless said. “And if you ask the right kind of question or you work it in the right kind of way, interesting things can emerge.”
The substance of the chart may seem trivial, but McCandless’ broader point should resonate with security professionals, whether they use Facebook to communicate with friends and loved ones or consider Twitter a bewildering, silly, or annoying concept.
In particular for those responsible for emergency response and continuity of operations, open-source social media can provide an invaluable resource for maximizing real-time situational awareness. This was demonstrated during numerous events last year, from the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti to the September wildfires in Boulder, Colorado.
The sheer scale of data, however, and questions about its veracity, pose challenges. Practitioners, programmers, and crisis mappers alike are still working to address those concerns. Meanwhile, emergency management practitioners are getting the most out of two specific social media tools: microblog Twitter and photo-sharing site Flickr.
On Twitter, registered users can post updates of up to 140 characters and can view feeds aggregating the posts of other users they “follow.”
Several factors make Twitter useful for gathering and disseminating information. First, most of Twitter’s roughly 220 million users leave their profiles open to public view online, even by nonregistered users. Second, Twitter is searchable using Boolean logic—where one searches by saying find A and B but not C; for example, “Jackson and Andrew but not Michael.”
Third, Twitter’s application programming interface (API), the means by which other software interacts with the site, is open. That allows the world’s technorati to program tools to harness its data, from user dashboards like TweetDeck to specialized search and sentiment-analysis functions.
These factors combine to make Twitter a good tool for spotting trends or getting live reports from people at the scene of an incident, and it has become a way to gather short news alerts from established, trusted users. It can also be a way to disseminate information.
Many emergency response professionals have used Twitter for quick searches of real-time “tweets” to assess rapidly unfolding situations. The results are chronological, which is better for such situations than a Google search, because Google will rank results based on the popularity of the source among other factors.
Let’s say a person writes a low-traffic blog, and during a disaster, that person blogs via a wireless device that they are “trapped in rubble and running out of water.” An emergency manager who searches Google an hour later for “(town name) and ‘trapped’ or ‘water’” may get results with a lot of very popular, day-old news stories about the disaster but not that post. If that same person tweets that they are trapped and out of water, and includes the address, an emergency manager who follows Twitter, or more likely a saved Twitter search feed on TweetDeck for “(town name) and ‘water’ or ‘trapped’” will instantly see that tweet pop up in a feed, with the option of an audible chime.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator W. Craig Fugate, an early adopter of social media who is pushing broader Twitter use in his agency, tells Security Management that when he hears a report of a developing event, he takes out his smart phone and conducts a quick search, often using simply a place name and the nature of the reported event.
Users should be aware, however, that search results for a location may also include tweets posted outside the desired area by users whose Twitter profile location is within the area. Moreover, tweets are not filtered or verified. Anyone can post anything claiming to be anyone located anywhere.
Fugate acknowledges that there may be chaff among the search results, but there will also be wheat. He takes the example of searching during the early hours of the Boulder fire, before the common text hashtag #boulderfire emerged.
“If you’ve got the Boulder fire you could actually say, ‘I want to see every Tweet that’s within 50 miles of downtown Boulder that says fire.’ And I may get a band called Fire Dogs and see tweets on that, but I’m also going to get the wildfires in there as well,” Fugate says.
For the uninitiated, placing an “@” sign in a tweet followed by a user’s name references them and draws their attention by posting the tweet to his or her “mentions” feed. Hashtags, meaning the “#” symbol followed by a word, classifies the tweet’s topic or type of data being tweeted. Abbreviated hashtags like “#src” would precede the source attribution of information, and “#loc” the location of the poster or the matter at hand. For example, a coworker might tweet “@joestraw power outage #loc 1625 Prince St. Alexandria VA #src @ASIS_Intl” to let me know the power is out at my office.
On Twitter, users have the option of including a location for both their base profile—ostensibly their home or office location—and their individual tweets. The nature of location data is at the discretion of the user: town, address, or even 10-digit GPS grid coordinates can be used if they choose to find and include them.
Tweets can be tagged for location either within the text—as described—or in optional metadata. With Twitter’s location-based functionality activated, users must search for a municipal location name, then either select or create an actual “place” name, such as a business or public place, to tag the tweet.
One of the first major international events in which Twitter played a notable role was the protests that surrounded the 2009 elections in Iran. While the event demonstrated the medium’s power, it also exposed some of its shortcomings. It led to some refinement in searches that are still useful now.
For example, at the height of the election protests in Iran, even major media outlets credited Twitter as a primary source of information. But that event occurred before Twitter launched its location-based functions. Thus, a quick search of the hashtag #iranelection by users looking for dispatches from the streets of Iran would result in frustration. Most of the tweets with that hashtag were messages expressing support for the protesters, while many others bore spam links.