UA study to help officials better use social media in disaster responses

by Rose Ann Pearce (rapearce@thecitywire.com) 57 views 

Information on social media sites may prove beneficial for emergency managers in determining the greatest needs in a community that has suffered a major disaster or emergency. At least that’s the object of a new research project underway at the University of Arkansas.

Ashlea Bennett Milburn, an assistant professor of industrial engineering, recently received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to find a way to effectively harness the power of social media to improve emergency response. The grant was awarded through the Faculty Early Career Development Program to develop decision-support models that identify scenarios in which the integration of information posted to social-media could improve emergency response.

“One way to accelerate emergency response is to harness the power of social data,” Milburn said.

But, she cautioned, the accuracy of information isn’t assured just because it’s on the Internet or social media site.

“I’ve talked to many emergency managers who said their agencies take action on social data only after verifying it. That takes time too. Our models will help address this problem,” Milburn said.

When a disaster strikes, “boots on the ground” has been the traditional way to gather information on search and rescue or where supplies, food and water, for instance, are needed. Typically, social media is collecting more information more quickly over a larger area. Milburn cited as an example 20 people stranded in a house in need of food and water. They post the information on a social media site because they can’t reach 911.

“It’s little nuggets like this you can pull from social media. We’re moving in the direction of using this information,” Milburn said.

The models developed in her research also will apply to any large company which responds to emergencies or maintains a number of distribution centers with disaster stockpiles to respond more quickly to emergencies like Hurricane Katrina or other weather emergencies.

“With social data, we should have more information about where people are and what they need,” she said. “This will help improve emergency response plans for governments or businesses.”

Two of the largest companies in Northwest Arkansas well known for their disaster relief efforts are also very active on social media throughout the year. Wal-Mart Stores and Tyson Foods each have designated teams that track disasters and dispatch relief efforts according. Wal-Mart has said it uses everything it can muster for preparedness and reaction to disasters which includes communication with government and charity relief organizations as well as its own teams in Bentonville and those it has dispatched in the field.

Tyson Foods also routinely shares on social media its efforts to help during times of disaster. No one from Tyson Foods responded to a request for a statement on this issue.

Walmart spokesman Aaron Mullins, who works in the retailer’s Emergency Operations Center in Bentonville, said the retailer does use social media, specifically Twitter.

“It is a quick way for us to be notified of a possible incident and get a sense of how bad things really are. However, we don’t take action until we can verify through other credible sources,” Mullins said.

Milburn said there are risks associated with ignoring social-media data. Her research is aimed at evaluating the trade-off between getting more information faster with the risk that some of the information may not be accurate.

The models will quantify the value of information at various stages of verification. Results will be translated to first responders through a simulation that provides a comparative demonstration of response planning with and without social data.

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