As Congress goes about grilling Homeland Security over the department’s monitoring of social media—as it did in a hearing last week—a more fulsome understanding of the benefits of social media monitoring and analysis is needed. The value of social media monitoring extends far beyond the important but niche domain of monitoring terrorist chatter online. Rather than asking why the federal government should monitor social media, Congress should be asking why aren’t more agencies monitoring social media?
Monitoring and analyzing terrorist conversations to gain actionable intelligence is simply the low hanging fruit that agencies can pick to aid their missions. There are at least three additional ways social media monitoring can be useful—even critical—for government agencies, and a variety of other, smaller benefits as well.
1. Improving situational awareness and emergency response
Whether it was the recent earthquake in Virginia, Arab protests during Arab Spring, or Capt Sully’s heroic landing of a commercial passenger airplane on the Hudson River, the best and usually the first bits of information about the situation on the ground during emergencies and natural disasters are coming from individual, first-hand witness accounts posted to social media. If the government does not monitor that information, then we are quite simply abandoning precious resources and turning our backs on life-saving information.
If social media were a viable resource during 9/11 and the government was monitoring social media channels, perhaps Americans would have been more prepared and armed with information to help them stay safe in the unfolding crisis. The same may be true for Katrina. Had Twitter been as pervasive of a tool for spreading information then, operators on the ground could have been able to more readily identify assets available at their disposal, such as the infamous dozens of yellow school buses left to rot in the parking lot that could have been used as transport vehicles for displaced persons.
2. Analyzing disease outbreaks before they become pandemics
People provide a lot of details of their lives online, even on open forums like Twitter. The information can and is being used to identify patterns in disease transference across geographic areas. Scientists at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School used Twitter to track a Cholera epidemic. Researchers were able to collect 4,697 reports and 188,819 worldwide Tweets. While it wasn’t a perfect science, they were able to make a general assessment regarding the outbreak activity, including a calculation of the outbreak’s “reproductive number,” indicating how quickly the outbreak was progressing. More importantly, they did it in just two weeks—far faster than they could have using traditional sampling methodology.
These insights are helpful for public health professionals trying to determine the necessary resources that healthcare providers and hospitals need to adequately prepare for outbreaks. The last thing we all want is to be left without enough medication to go around, or to lack information that could have helped prevent infections.
3. Saving money through program evaluations
Instead of slashing budgets arbitrarily, Congress and agencies could work together to gather information on what the public thinks about government programs and services and make budgetary and programmatic changes based on actual evidence, not the anecdotal testimony of a few outliers marched to hearings on Capitol Hill.
OhMyGov Inc. provided such an analysis for the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2010, where we analyzed what veterans complained about online with regard to the services the VA was providing. Given the VA’s main charter to provide quality healthcare to veterans, it’s easy to think quality of care would be the number one complaint. It wasn’t. Only 5 percent complained about the quality of care they received by the VA. But 60 percent of complaints were about poor customer service—most of which was directed at seven specific VA facilities. With this information, the VA can allocate resources to fix problems instead of mandating more costly and unnecessary across-the-board healthcare quality improvements.
Social media analysis uses aggregated data. This type of aggregated data, where personally identifiable information is not included, is critical to informing government operational effectiveness and can save a lot of money by identifying where resources should be spent to fix or solve problems.
Physicians in the medical field are switching to evidenced-based medicine; isn’t time our government follows the same path?