Since then, Twitter has made vast advances in filtering out spam, says Kate Starbird, who is a Ph.D. candidate in crisis informatics at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a volunteer with Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis (Project EPIC).
Even without spam, the volume of relevant tweets can be overwhelming during a major event, so finding the most useful tweets requires advanced searches. For example, last November, a search for tweets with the hashtags #haiti and #cholera generated a variety of results, among them charitable appeals, statements of sympathy, and germane, albeit self-promoting links to blog posts. The solution might start with an advanced search that blocks posts with the words “donate,” “thoughts,” “prayers,” and “post.”
Searches are further aided by free dashboard applications like TweetDeck. Within the program, users can create customized feed columns based on saved searches. Richard Barley, TweetDeck’s community manager, acknowledges, however, that the application does not handle location-based searches, because Twitter has not yet allowed that functionality, “though it is something we very much hope to be able to add soon.”
Even a refined search feed on Twitter may look of little use to the untrained eye. Familiarity, however, and the emergence of informal standard operating procedures for use of the medium can help.
It’s a bit like listening to a police scanner. As one acclimates to the lingo, the meaning becomes clear.
Laura Madison, an independent researcher who surveyed social media use by law enforcement officers for the Canadian Association of Police on Social Media, closely followed the Boulder fire online. She agrees that as you become an experienced “listener,” on Twitter, you learn to filter out the extraneous chatter and tune in to the critical information.
This process is aided by common formats and terminology, which leaders in the volunteer community have sought to expand. An effort led by Starbird, called Tweak the Tweet, seeks to establish a standard set of hashtags to communicate clearly using a minimum of characters. Hashtags in the project’s lexicon include: #trapped or #injured, followed by name and location; #need, followed by resource; #have or #offer, followed by resource; and #imok, followed by name to show “I am okay”; and #ruok, followed by name, to ask “Are you okay?”
Similarly, the American Red Cross, which recently held a summit on the emerging issue of social media in disasters, supports efforts to market specific tags, though it does not endorse any, says Wendy Harman, the organization’s director of social media. “We’re not trying to dictate that process,” she told Security Management. “The people are going to pick the best way to talk to one another, and we just want to listen to that.”
Of course, people in danger during disasters might not be aware of these agreed-upon standard tags, which is why focused, saved searches for terms like “help” or “water” are also critical.
The functionality of Flickr, a photo sharing site owned by Yahoo! Inc., is more straightforward than Twitter’s. Registered users can upload digital photographs to their account. They can also organize and tag pictures.
While sites like Kodak Gallery are more commonly used for private sharing and purchasing of prints, Flickr is widely used for public sharing; it has more than 40 million people posting to the site and 5 billion images. Captioning and tagging of the site’s publicly posted photos allows easy searching for specific content, which can prove a useful resource for first responders seeking situational awareness in an emergency.
Users can also put in location data, which can be at the level of the user’s profile and tied to individual photos, with each type of location data searchable by others who visit the Web site.
Emergency managers consider open-source, searchable photographs from sites like Flickr a reliable source. Not only is a picture worth a thousand words, it is more reliable, because while pictures can be altered, they are more difficult to fabricate than textual lies.
The newest, and perhaps the most controversial, functionality in social media is also the most valuable to event and emergency managers: geotagging using cellular location or GPS data generated by a wireless device. This goes a step beyond a user adding location-based information as discussed in the context of Twitter and Flickr postings and profiles.
Due to the clear privacy concerns, geo-tagging is always an opt-in functionality. Neither Web 2.0 sites nor wireless devices default to include it in social networking data.
Photos can be geotagged through a variety of means. Newer smartphones with cameras, like Apple iPhones, query users before they take each photograph to ask if they want to geotag it. If that feature is enabled, the GPS coordinates are then included in the picture’s metadata. That functionality is also present in some of the newer digital cameras.
As of last year, only 4 percent of adults who used the Internet also used mobile applications to share their location. But even that small percentage can be helpful in spotting trends in emergencies, says Adam Geitjey, CTO of the Tucuxi software development unit of ESi Acquisition, which markets the Web-based emergency management tool WebEOC.
“It’s just starting to be enough people to gain a critical mass of this data that trends emerge from,” Geitjey tells Security Management.