Applying citizen science model to disaster management
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Applying citizen science model to disaster management

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Presentation to National Academy of Science workshop on Public Response to Alerts and Warnings Using Social Media. I argued that the citizen science model, in which volunteers contribute to......

Presentation to National Academy of Science workshop on Public Response to Alerts and Warnings Using Social Media. I argued that the citizen science model, in which volunteers contribute to substantive scientific research, is a great model for how to involve the general public in making accurate, actionable social media posts (Twitter, Twitvid, Facebook) that first responders can use to direct their efforts in a disaster.

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  • 1. Applying the citizen science model to disaster management W. David Stephenson Stephenson Strategies NAS Public Response to Alerts and Warnings using Social Media Workshop February 29, 2012   What  if  social  media  were  to  make  the  public  full  partners  in  emergency  communications?  I  will  outline  a  scenario  in  my  talk  by  which  I  believe  training  the  public  to  provide  accurate  information  would  be  feasible. That’s  not  the  situation  at  present.  
  • 2. While  of>icials  are  now  belatedly  coming  around  to  using  social  media  as  an  alternative  broadcasting  medium  to  disseminate  of>icial  information  in  disasters,  most  remain  leery  of  actively  soliciting  information  from  the  public  via  social  media  and  mobile  devices,  usually  citing  questions  about  its  reliability.      As  FEMA  Administrator  Craig  Fugate  summarized  the  prevailing  wisdom  in  a  speech  earlier  this  month,  most  of  his  colleagues  see  the  public  as  “…not  worthy,  not  trustworthy,  you  have  not  been  cleared.  You  do  not  have  a  background  check…  you  panic  in  an  disaster,  and  cannot  be  relied  upon  to  think  rationally...” Fugate,  by  contrast,  is  open  to  public  input  via  the  social  media.  As  he  said  in    Congressional  testimony: “I  often  say  that  individuals,  families  and  communities  are  our  nations  ‘>irst  >irst  responders.  The  sooner  we  are  able  to  ascertain  the  on-­‐the-­‐ground  reality  of  a  situation,  the  better   we  will  be  able  to  coordinate  our  response  effort  in  support  of  our  citizens  and  >irst  responders.  Through  the  use  of  social  media,  we  can  disseminate  important  information  to   individuals  and  communities,  while  also  receiving  essential  real-­‐time  updates  from  those  with  >irst-­‐hand  awareness…”     But  even  Fugate  sets  a  low  bar  for  accuracy  of  information  gathered  via  the  social  media,  emphasizing  that  what  he’s  interested  in  is  primarily  a  large  number  of  data  points  that  indicate  the  need  for  prompt  action,  rather  than  expecting  that  information  necessarily  being  scrupulously  accurate.    As  he  said,  “  ..    we  looked  at  social  media  as  the  public  telling  us  enough  information  to  suggest  this  is  worse  than  we  thought  to  make  decisions  to  spend    …  your  money  without  ….  waiting  for  a    formal  request,  without    assessments.  ….  All  I  need  is  enough  information  to  hit  my  tipping  point.  I  don’t  need  a  lot  of  information….”
  • 3. Emergent behavior While  I  understand  his  point,  I  think  that  Administrator  Fugate  sets  too  low  expectations  for  the  public.  Why  can’t  we  provide  information  that  is  not  only  valuable  because  of  its  volume,  but  also  its  accuracy? If  individuals  actually  did  provide  accurate  information  that  would  really  be  actionable,  and  provide  substantive  situational  awareness,  that  would  be  consistent  with  what  we  know  of  behavior  in  general  during  disasters. Unlike  the  stereotype  of  un-­‐credentialed,  panic-­‐prone  individuals,  years  of  research  at  the  two  primary  disaster  research  centers,  the  Universities  of  Delaware  and  Colorado,  have  demonstrated  that  what  happens  in  emergencies  is  the  kind  of  “emergent  behavior”  that  this  termite  colony,  and  the  other  social  insects  demonstrate.  A  large  number  of  individuals,  acting  largely  on  their  own  and  self-­‐directed,  cobble  together  highly  sophisticated  collaborative  actions.  Emergent  behavior  is  a  higher  level  of  collective  behavior  -­‐-­‐  and  combined  intelligence  -­‐-­‐  that  couldn’t  be  predicted  from  the  behavior  of  individuals.     The  group  becomes  a  highly  capable  “superorganism.”      
  • 4.   As  the  Delaware  researchers  report,  “Studies  of  evacuation  at  times  of  crises  have  now  been  undertaken  for  the  last  50  years.  They  have  consistently  shown  that  at  times  of  great  crises,  much  of  the  organized  behavior  is  emergent  rather  than  traditional  [such  as  this  evacuation  from  lower  Manhattan  on  9/11].  In  addition,  it  is  of  a  very  decentralized  nature,  with  the  dominance  of  pluralistic  decision  making,  and  the  appearance  of  imaginative  and  innovative  new  attempts  to  cope  with  the  contingencies  that  typically  appear  in  major  disasters.”   What  could  be  more  ideal  than  the  combination  of  existing  patterns  of  emergent  behavior  in  disasters  and  the  advent  of  social  media  that  directly  encourage  and  facilitate  emergent  behavior?
  • 5.   It  seems  to  me  that  there  are  two  relevant  analogies:  World  War  II  plane  spotters  and  the  growing  phenomenon  of  web-­‐enabled  “citizen  science.”   During  World  War  II,  those  on  the  homefront,  from  housewives  to  elderly  men,  were  trained  to  spot  both  Allied  and  Axis  planes  through  tools  such  as  these  decks  of  playing  cards.  On  a  number  of  occasions  the  plane  spotters  were  able  to  identify  US  planes  that  crashed,  and  even  though  I  haven’t  been  able  to  document  any  cases  where  they  actually  spotted  Axis  planes  over  the  continental  U.S.,  I  have  no  doubts  that  the  attention  to  detail  in  the  playing  cards  and  other  training  and  the  volunteers’  zeal  would  have  made  that  feasible  if  needed.       Updating  that  approach,  I  was  one  of  many  volunteers  who  “searched”  for  Steve  Fawcett’s  downed  plane  by  using  Amazon’s  Mechanical  Turk  system.  We  were  given  a  visualization  of  what  the  plane  might  look  like  if  crashed  into  a  mountainous  area  and  then  asked  to  examine  photos  of  a  number  of  quadrants  in  the  area  where  the  plane  was  believed  to  have  crashed  to  see  if  there  was  any  similar  visual  evidence.  
  • 6. Citizen science   More  relevant  to  using  the  social  media  and  mobile  devices  in  disasters  is  the  current  phenomenon  of  citizen  science,  which  harnesses  the  interest  of  everyday  people  in  using  21st-­‐century  technology  to  participate  in  scholarly  research.  According  to  the  Citizen  Science  Alliance,  citizen  science:• “..  [is  able]  to  cope  with  extremely  large  data  sets  • ..  provides  quantitative  estimates  of  error.  This  is  an  essential  part  of  the  wisdom  of  crowds,  allowing  us  to  understand  the  accuracy  of  the  data  we  provide.• …  naturally  provide[s]  large  and  powerful  training  sets  for  machine  learning  approaches  to  classi>ication  problems.  This  is  an  essential  part  of  our  future;  as  data  sets  continue  to  grow  we  will  need  to  hand  off  more  and  more  of  the  routine  tasks  to  machines;  by  doing  citizen  science  today  we  can  help  train  them.• …  [can  lead  to  serendipitous  discovery  ]Serendipitous  discovery  is  a  natural  consequence  of  exposing  data  to  large  numbers  of  users,  and  is  something  that  is  very  dif>icult  to  program  into  automatic  routines.  Humans  are  naturally  programmed  to  keep  an  eye  out  for  the  weird  and  the  odd,  even  while  sorting  most  objects  into  more  mundane  categories.• While  the  primary  goal  of  our  projects  is  to  produce  academic  research,  by  their  very  nature  they  are  also  outreach  projects.  As  it  involves  our  volunteers  directly  in  the  process  of  research,  citizen  science  is  a  powerful  tool  for  both  formal  and  informal  education.  Unlike  traditional  education  programs,  from  the  moment  users  >irst  interact  with  one  of  our  project,  they  are  not  only  learning  but  also  contributing  to  science.” Doesn’t  that  emphasis  on  classifying  a  large  number  of  data  points  and  serendipitous  discovery  sound  similar  to  >irst  responders’  need  for  rapid  reporting  of  wide  assortments  of  disaster  information? These  approaches  have  led  to  signi>icant  scienti>ic  progress.  One  amateur  astronomy  researcher  participating  in  the  Galaxy  Zoo  project  found  “Hanny’s  Voorwerp,  a  dust  cloud  generated  by  a  nearby  quasar,  and    participants  In  the  National  Geographic’s  Field  Expedition:  Mongolia  analyze  GeoEye  satellite  images  to  identify  potential  dig  sites  for  archaeologists  to  explore  in  Mongolia.  The  information  provided  by  amateurs  is  detailed  and  scienti>ically  valid. This  scienti>ic  rigor  doesn’t  just  happen:  the  supervising  institutions  put  a  lot  of  effect  into  creating  simple,  easy-­‐to-­‐follow  educational  programs  to  train  the  volunteers.  Why  can’t  that  be  the  case  for  emergency  response  as  well?
  • 7. #wxreport One  government  agency  that  I  think  does  follow  the  citizen  science  model  about  soliciting  speci>ic  information  from  the  public  during  a  disaster  is  the  National  Weather  Service.  It  urges  people  observing  exceptional  weather  patterns  to  submit  Tweets  using  the  hashtag  #wxreport.    The  hashtag  makes  the  Tweet  machine-­‐readable,  so  that  the  information  becomes  additional  data  points  for  forecasters  to  consider.  Given  the  importance  of  hyperlocal  conditions  such  as  microbursts,  this  can  be  invaluable  information  for  the  NWS.
  • 8.   Applying  the  citizen  science  model  to  disaster  response  is  not  just  an  academic  intererest  for  me:  I  have  been  directly  involved  in  several  projects  over  the  past  decade  that  I  believe  show  it  is  possible  to  use  the  same  technologies  that  individuals  can  use  to  report  disaster    to  train  them  and/or  give  them  the  tools  in  advance  needed  to  provide  accurate,  actionalble  information.   Nine  years  ago  I  created  what  I  believe  is  still  the  only  comprehensive  program  for  smartphones  to  give  the  average  person  –  in  his  or  her  hand  –  all  of  the  relevant  information  needed  to  prepare  for,  report  and  respond  to  a  disaster.
  • 9.   Later  I  prepared  a  series  of  YouTube  videos  with  speci>ic  information  on  social  media  and  other  tools  for  disaster  response  –  a  project  that  I’m  belatedly  subjecting  to  some  long-­‐overdue  updating.
  • 10. VITA Wireless when you need it most   Finally,  I  designed  strategies  for  the  Wireless  Foundation  and  National  Public  Radio  to  train  the  public  about  how  to  use  social  media  in  combination  with  their  wireless  devices  to  report  to  authorities  during  a  disaster.   If  I  could  do  this  by  myself  and  with  limited  resources,  imagine  what  could  be  done  if    government  and  industry  groups  such  as  the  Wireless  Foundation  were  to  partner  to  design  high-­‐quality,  compelling  outreach  programs?
  • 11. Tweak the Tweet I’d  like  to  conclude  by  focusing  on  two  areas  consistent  with  the  citizen  science  approach  that  I  think  might  be  particularly  effective  ways  to  increase  the  accuracy  of  citizen  reporting  in  disasters. One  is  to  actively  promote  the  Tweak  the  Tweet  program  that  Leysia  Palen  and  her  Project  EPIC  colleagues  created  to  make  tweets  more  focused  and  machine  readable  in  disasters,  similar  to  the  NWS  hashtags.    The  system  is  made  up  of  a  series  of  simple,  easy-­‐to-­‐remember  and  short  –  so  they  don’t  use  too  many  of  the  precious  140  characters  in  a  tweet  –hashtags  that  serve  to  identify  the  data  that  follow  them.  Like  the  NWS  hashtag,  the  TtT  hashtags  make  the  data  that  follows  each  of  them  machine  readable.   The  system  was  rushed  into  service  during  the  height  of  the  Haiti  earthquake  recovery,  and  proved  a  valuable  way  of  structuring  the  information  that  residents  and  aid  workers  were  reporting  from  the  scene  of  the  diaster.    For  my  own  use  I’ve  prepared  a  laminated  wallet-­‐sized  card  with  my  emergency  contact  information  on  one  side  and  the  TtT  hashtags  on  the  other,  to  make  certain  that  I’d  have  the  information  on  me  if  needed.    Why  couldn’t  similar  cards  be  mass-­‐produced?
  • 12. Twitter videos Finally,  I’d  like  to  focus  on  one  aspect  of  social  media  that  I  don’t  believe  gets  enough  attention  from  any  of>icials  in  disasters:  streaming  media  sources  such  as  Twitvid,  posterous,  or  vimio. Many  of  us  now  carry  smartphones  capable  of  recording  and  broadcasting,  in  real  time,  many  minutes  of  High  De>inition  video.  Of  course  there  are  many  disasters  where  bandwidth  is  severely  limited,  making  Twitter  the  tool  of  choice  because  of  its  low  bandwidth  requirements,  but  when  infrastructure  is  intact,  consider  the  wealth  of  information  that  could  be  conveyed  by  a  willing  volunteer  panning  his  or  her  smartphone  while  also  narrating  what  is  being  said: ν! an  assessment  of  priority  damage  (downed  utilities,  buildings  hit  by  explosions,  residences  destroyed,  etc.) ν! placing  the  video  in  context  (including  content  such  as  landmarks)   ν! identifying  possible    terrorists  who  run  from  the  sceneMultiple  videos  shot  from  multiple  perspectives  can  help  authorities  assemble  a  literal  and/or  a  >igurative  comprehensive  view  -­‐-­‐  talk  about  situational  awareness!One  need  only  remember  the  video  shot  by  a  Virginia  Tech  student  immediately  after  the  mass  shootings  there  that  was  rebroadcast  ad  nauseum  by  the  cable  news  channels,  or  the  countless  videos  of  violence  during  the  Arab  Spring  demonstrates  to  appreciate  the  wealth  of  information  that  could  be  conveyed  by  such  a  video.  Yet,  I  have  been  unable  to  >ind  any  public  agency  that  gives  guidance  on  what  to  include  in  such  videos  and  how  to  submit  them.
  • 13. For more information: W. David Stephenson Stephenson Strategies D.Stephenson@stephensonstrategies.com 508 740-8918 ... And don’t forget to read Data Dynamite: how liberating information will transform our world.   I  agree  with  Administrator  Fugate  that  sometimes  the  barest  of  real-­‐time  information  can  be  invaluable  to  >irst  responders  in  determining  the  scope  of  the  affected  area  and  the  resources  to  mobilize.  But  does  that  mean  that  we  should  automatically  settle  for  the  lowest  common-­‐denominator  information  from  citizen  responders?  That’s  not  good  enough  for  citizen  science  experiments,  which  have  proven  that  amateurs  are  able  to  provide  accurate  information  if  they  are  educated  in  advance  about  what  is  needed.   I  believe  that,  if  given  the  information  they  need  in  easily  accessed  forms,  citizen  responders  will  provide  information  that  is  not  only  timely  but  also  increasingly  accurate.  Let’s  launch  education  programs  that  will  do  just  that.     Thank  you.