The challenge

Leveraging social networks in a disaster

Social media has changed the way people broadcast and receive information, with vast amounts of data communicated every minute.

These channels provide a new, rich source of information from which disaster managers and emergency response agencies can obtain real-time awareness of developing situations. However, without suitable tools this information can't be used.

For example details about the 2009 Victorian bushfires were reported in real-time on social network sites, but this was not visible to state or federal disaster response agencies.

Our response

Introducing Emergency Situation Awareness software

Details about the 2009 Victorian bushfires were reported in real-time on social network sites, but this was not visible to state or federal disaster response agencies.

Our Emergency Situation Awareness (ESA) software detects unusual behaviour in the Twitter stream and quickly alerts the user when a disaster event is being broadcast. ESA also stores complete Twitter stream information and allows post-event analyses.

Such useful and accessible information can provide timely situation awareness for disaster managers and emergency response agencies.

ESA works by exploiting the statistical incidence of words used on Twitter to describe emergency events. It's trained using historical word occurrences from past disaster incidents. This allows ESA to reveal emerging topics and flag them for investigation.

Searches repeated every minute look for words that are used more often than normal and these detected 'word bursts' are extracted, stored and are available for access by incident response agencies via the ESA web application.

ESA provides situation awareness by using data mining techniques including burst detection, text classification, online clustering and geo-tagging. These techniques are adapted and optimised for dealing with real-time high-volume text streams, which identify early indicators of unexpected events, explore the impact of identified incidents and monitor the evolution of events.

ESA can:

  • detect unexpected or unusual incidents, possibly ahead of other communications
  • condense and summarise messages about an incident maintaining awareness of aggregated content without having to read individual messages
  • classify and review high-value messages during an incident (e.g. messages describing infrastructure damage or cries for help); understand the impact of an incident on people and infrastructure
  • identify, track, and manage issues within an incident as they arise, develop, and conclude; pro-actively identify and manage issues that may last for hours, days or weeks
  • perform analysis of incidents by exploring social media content from before, during, and after an incident.

The results

Social media helping disaster managers

The potential applications for ESA for disaster managers include:

  • evidence of pre-incident activity
  • near real-time notice of an incident occurring
  • first-hand reports of incident impacts
  • gauging community response to an emergency warning.

Recently, a hospital was threatened by a grass fire in Cloncurry in outback Queensland. Our ESA software gave the Queensland Department of Community Safety early warning of the incident.

ESA provided crisis coordinators early notification to prepare their response to the fire while waiting for confirmation from official channels. This meant the evacuation plan could be prepared, providing precious extra time to the emergency management workers on the ground.

It allowed efficient, safe and timely evacuation of hospital staff and patients before the fire got out of control and evacuation became difficult or impossible

Accessing ESA

If you are an employee of one of our participating organisations you can self-register for access to the system. If you’d like your organisation to be able to access ESA, please get in touch using the contact form below.

ESA won the Australian Computer Society's Digital Disruptors 2015 Award in the Government - NGO/NFP category.

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