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Is Social Media the Ultimate Experiment in Big Data? Especially In Disasters?

When Superstorm Sandy hit the eastern seaboard earlier this month more than 20 million people took to twitter to show their support, air grievances and ask for help. Click here for our conversation with Kate Starbird about the social media response.

But Sandy wasn’t the first natural disaster to create a social media storm. And it wasn’t the first event tracked by the professors at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The team of professors run Project Epic.

Ken Anderson is a member of Project Epic. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that Project Epic is a 2.9 million dollar grant program from the National Science Foundation.

“Project Epic looks at how people use social media during times of crisis. The perception is that the first responders are firefighters and police officers. But in reality members of the public are typically the first responders to a situation. Now those first responders have a device in their hands that lets them publish information almost immediately after the event,” said Anderson.

But that quickness has a price.

“Sometimes these “first responders” struggle with accuracy. The issues fall into two groups. Frist you have the group of people that post information that was initially accurate but then information evolves and the tweet is no longer accurate. The second group of people just flat out generate false information,” said Anderson.

The good news. Is that false information is usually quickly and efficiently snuffed out. “There is a sense of alturism throughout the online community,” said Anderson, “People will get on twitter and say, ‘don’t follow that person, they are giving out bad information.'”

Best Practices

  1. Train volunteers for future events. Teach them what information is useful and practical. People can get lost in the grandness that is social media.
  2. Integrate volunteers with the formal response.
  3. Train emergency officials on how and when to use social media in their plans.
  4. Create teams of experts who will be ready to take over when disasters strike. Check out our interview with Code for America about their Wildfire Disaster relief app. Prepared.ly. Or VOST which is a social media swat team.

Big Data Pitfalls

Social media creates troves of data. Right now the researchers in Boulder have more than 2.9 billion tweets all from the last 2 years.

“It’s great to collection information. But the real goal is to get the most accurate and useful information to emergency managers on the ground who can actually do something with the data. Part of the is finding a way to sift through the subjective and objective data,” said Anderson.

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