I’m going to keep this blog post technical because the emotions from yesterday’s events are still too difficult to deal with. Within an hour of the bombs going off, I received several emails asking me to comment on the use of social media in Boston and how it differed to the digital humanitarian response efforts I am typically engaged in. So here are just a few notes, nothing too polished, but some initial reactions.
Once again, we saw the outpouring of operational support from the “Crowd” with over two thousand people in the Boston area volunteering to take people in if they needed help, and this within 60 minutes of the attack. This was coordinated via a Google Spreadsheet & Google Form. This is not the first time that these web-based solutions were used for disaster response. For example, Google Spreadsheets was used to coordinate grassroots response efforts during the major Philippine floods in 2012.
We’re not all affected the same way during a crisis and those of us who are less affected almost always look for ways to help. Unlike the era of television broadcasting, the crowd can now become an operational actor in disaster response. To be sure, paid disaster response professionals cannot be everywhere at the same time, but the crowd is always there. This explains I have look called for a “Match.com for disaster response” to match local needs with local resources. So while I received numerous pings on Twitter, Skype and email about launching a crisis map for Boston, I am skeptical that doing so would have added much value.
What was/is needed is real-time filtering of social media content and matching of local needs (information and material needs) with local resources. There are two complementary ways to do this: human computing (e.g., crowdsourcing, microtasking, etc) and machine computing (natural language processing, machine learning, etc), which is why my team and I at QCRI are working on developing these solutions.
Other observations from the response to yesterday’s tragedy:
- Boston Police made active use of their Twitter account to inform and advise. They also asked other Twitter users to spread their request for everyone to leave the city center area. The police and other emergency services also actively crowdsourced photographs and video footage to begin their criminal investigations. There was such heavy multimedia social media activity in the area that one could no doubt develop a Photosynth rendering of the scene.
- There were calls for residents to unlock their Wifi networks to enable people in the streets to get access to the Internet. This was especially important
after the cellphone network was taken offlineis equally important as access to water, food, shelter, etc, during a crisis. for security reasons. To be sure, access to information
I’d welcome any other observation from readers, e.g., similarities and differences between the use of technologies for domestic emergency management versus international humanitarian efforts. I would also be interested to hear thoughts about how the two could be integrated or at the very least learn from each other.