Social Media's Humanitarian Side

By Joseph Straw

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.

(To finish reading "Bird's Eye View," the January cover story for Security Management, please click here.)

♦ Photo by Andrew-Hyde/Flickr


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