Nearly all major emergency management agencies already use geospatial information systems (GIS)—electronic maps—in command and control, with applications like WebEOC and ArcGIS software from Esri.
The Alabama Department of Homeland Security’s (Alabama DHS) Virtual Alabama is one of the country’s most advanced GIS applications for situational awareness, built to provide the state with a common operating picture. Built on the Google Earth platform, the system incorporates data ranging from critical infrastructure like utility lines to flood plains to the floor plans of public schools.
The next step is to make these electronic maps more dynamic and useful for situational awareness purposes via an overlay of data points from social media through what is called crisis mapping.
Boulder’s Project EPIC, led by University of Colorado computer science professors and staffed by volunteer researchers like Starbird is one effort to that end. In its early stages, the program doesn’t seek to establish a map format for crises but rather to develop effective software solutions for synthesizing crisis data so that the information can be imported by other users based on their needs, and overlaid on their maps, whether open-sourced or proprietary.
Perhaps the most famous crisis map was generated in the hours following last year’s earthquake in Haiti by the international volunteer Ushahidi Project. In that case, emergency radio broadcasts directed emergency victims who were stranded and without other means of communication to send a text message of their emergency needs to INFO (3646). Volunteers accessed the texts and used the data to create a crisis map in the cloud.
In addition to compiling data from texts, the 3646 project also followed Twitter. At least one woman was pulled from the rubble after tweeting her location and tagging the message “3646.”
What the Ushahidi Project lacked in Haiti was automation—instant crisis mapping of the information in the message. That was impossible because of the lack of location-based services on Twitter then, and the fact that location data based on cellular tower position is far less accurate than GPS.
The first step toward automation is mashups of separate applications. Population of any Web-based map, such as in Google Maps, with photographs from a site like Flickr is the classic example of a mashup. Generally, they require specific programming based on open-source APIs. Applications are emerging, however, that allow population of Web-based maps with data like photographs from Flickr without additional programming. On the free site iMapFlickr.com, for example, users can simply login using their Flickr/Yahoo! account, then follow cues to create a map populated with photos of their choosing, based on variables such as keywords, from “vacation” to “#boulderfire.”
FEMA has one of the first software applications capable of mapping tweets by profile location and geotags, Fugate says. The agency applies this functionality within its application of ArcGIS.
Data gathered widely from members of the public via social media pose clear concerns. In addition to concerns about the credibility of individual reports, government agencies like FEMA must consider the privacy implications of tapping social media.
Fugate says that neither he nor his agency are interested in individual messages or tweets during a response, which limits concerns about privacy and the credibility of individual posts. As Jeff Baryani of Esri says, “You don’t want to see the trees. You want to see the forest. You want to see the trends, not the individual data points.”
Fugate offers the hypothetical of an evacuation in advance of a hurricane. Mapped tweets for a region, say, the Outer Banks of North Carolina after an evacuation order, may give event managers a sense of public sentiment and may let them know that they need to change their message, he says.
“You’ll see [tweets] like, ‘I’m going to wait for the next forecast,’ or ‘I’m going to wait until morning.’ Then we would go back to our state or local officials and tell them that we don’t think the public quite got the gravity of this message, or we need to adjust our message,” Fugate says.
Many emergency managers harbor concerns that bad actors would spoof the system to divert resources or place responders in harm’s way. But officials again indicate that the volume of responses would militate against any false leads creating a problem when viewed in the context of all the data points.
Not everyone is sold on the idea of using social media for crisis maps, however. Virtual Alabama does not incorporate public Web 2.0 information and may not for some time, says Alabama DHS Director Art Faulkner. “The reason we’re not doing that is that it could overload first responders to the point where nonessential and nonpertinent behavior could be more of a hindrance than a help,” he says.