Expert Patrick Meier discusses the role technology and social media have played in crises like the Boston bombings and how policymakers – and the crowd – can use these tools better.
Patrick Meier is an expert on the application of new technologies to crisis earlywarning, humanitarian response and resilience. He currently serves as Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundations’ Computing Research Institute and blogs at www.iRevolution.net. He co-founded the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning, CrisisMappers, Digital Humanitarians, and the award-winning Standby Task Force. He served as Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi and has consulted extensively for many international organizations and programs. He received his PhD from the Fletcher School.
While a fast and comprehensive means of reporting breaking news, social media brings with it the risk of misreporting, which in some cases can be quite dangerous, as with Reddit’s misidentification of the Boston bombing culprit. How can authorities determine what’s credible? What is the relationship between law enforcement and social media?
So the first thing to keep in mind is that the need to verify information is not new: 911 is a crowdsourcing system. And just because some people either misdial the number or play a hoax and abuse the system does not mean that the system itself is not useful.
In the UK, only 25 percent of 999 calls are actually relevant. But the system is still very important because of that 25 percent for whom it will make a difference between life and death. So it is a question of how you manage this as best as possible, even with current traditional systems.
One issue is whether you can apply some of the legal issues around current traditional systems to social media. It is illegal to make hoax calls to 911. There is no reason why that shouldn’t happen in the case of Twitter as well. Not for everything you tweet, obviously, but if you are tweeting at the Boston Police with information, and they have solicited that information, then the same law should apply.
The London Fire Brigade, in December, publicly announced that they would add Twitter as a communication channel for people to report fires, and what’s really interesting about that is that London was also the first in the world to set up the emergency phone number. And now, 80 plus years later, you have the London Fire Brigade saying it’s time to upgrade the system and allow people to report via Twitter. In the US, we are also seeing a move to using mobile technology. In fact, people will be able to report by SMS to 911 by 2014. So this move to mobile technology is new, but the crowd-sourcing is not new.
Part of the problem is the sheer amount of data and the small proportion of it that is actually relevant. How can the process be managed in order to pull out the relevant and accurate parts?
Long story short, the technologies needed to determine relevance already exist, but they’re usually highly proprietary. It is very expensive to obtain licenses, and they are usually really complicated to use. What we at the Qatar Computing Research Institute want to do is make this technology free, open sourced, and easy to use.
One of my favorite quotes by William Gibson is, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” We know a big data solution is possible and now it’s about democratizing access to those technologies so that end users in the field can also make use of this technology in order to understand what’s happening around them, and hopefully to make better decisions.
One of the projects we’re working on to do this kind of verification is trying to crowdsource critical thinking during crises on social media. We need to find a way to crowdsource more critical thinking during disasters so that people think twice before tweeting. One way we’re doing this is by developing a platform called Verily, with some colleagues at the Masdar Institute, based on the red balloon DARPA challenge. We think that if you can do that for an entire country, surely you can do that in a far more geographically bounded area like Boston, where the social networks are even more interwoven so that the degrees of separation between individuals is very small.
We see more and more from disaster to disaster that there are these, what I call good digital Samaritans, who take it upon themselves to try and verify content. We saw three or four main individuals during Hurricane Sandy doing that, but they did this on their own and completely disconnected. What if instead of these individuals, we could open it up to the crowd and provide a platform that rationalizes the collection of evidence for and against a particular rumor? We systematize it, and we try and design the interaction with the platform in order to lend some more rigorous thinking about the kind of content.
It is almost an educational platform at the same time as it is a platform for time-critical crowdsourcing of evidence. The way that the platform would be triggered is by a verification request. Somebody who has heard about something or has a question would pose a verification request in the form of a yes or no question, such as “has this bridge been destroyed due to the earthquake”, and then they invite their social network to post any evidence that they might have.
The idea is that for any piece of content that somebody posts, you are invited to add a few sentences to describe why they might think it might be authentic or why they think it might not be, and then crowdsource to do this.
Private companies and individuals have been the primary users of this technology in crises, informing people about evacuation routes, medical assistance, etc. Should this timely dissemination of information be the government’s responsibility or is it best left to the “crowd”?
Can you stop the crowd from tweeting what they want? I think that you are best off assuming the crowd will continue sharing content, and what we need to do is find a way to encourage responsible sharing during disasters.
Before the bombings in Boston, the number of Boston Police Department followers was around 30 or 40 thousand. I checked again a couple days ago and there were a quarter of a million. There’s clearly a lot of interest for information from a trusted source. That has always been the case, but now there are different communication channels that one can use in order to obtain that information.
The Boston Police Force was also very on top of things in terms of regularly sharing information through social media channels to support their own efforts. I think it’s not necessarily an either/or; I think you want both of them to learn how to better use these technologies systems, to use better strategies to encourage more responsible use of social media during disasters.
How do you think we’ll be employing technology and social media in crisis management in the future, say, 15 years from now?
I don’t even know a year from now! One of my overarching goals is to try and build more resilient communities through the use of global technologies and social media. By resilience I mean the capacity for self-organization. We know that in disasters, the real first responders are the disaster-affected communities themselves. I want to find a way to empower the crowd to help itself during these disasters, get out of harm’s way, and mitigate the impact of the disaster. I hope that technology will go into the hands of those on the streets in the next year or two so that they are more empowered to survive a crisis.
In the future, I think there will be real-time content, real-time information, and real-time analysis specifically catered to where you are. We already have a “check in” system on social media. What about emergency “check-in”? When you check in, you would get highly customized information to you such as your medical history, where you live, and more.
How can government agencies or humanitarian responders better use social media and technology in emergency situations? Does public policy in its current form impede or promote innovation in this field?
I think what usually happens is that policy and regulation lag far behind innovation. That will probably always be the case, but we do need to update our policy to catch up with today’s world. There is a hugely important role for policy here to make better use of social media during disasters. We need to enlighten leadership to fully grasp the potential of these new technologies.
There is a very strong and important role for policy to educate the public. At schools, students are taught to duck and cover in case of an earthquake. Now we need to know how to tweet in case of an earthquake. There’s a responsibility that comes with tweeting during a crisis, and people need to understand what’s appropriate to tweet, what’s not appropriate to tweet, and especially what’s not appropriate to re-tweet. That all has to become part of our educational system moving forward.
We also need to look at what other countries are doing with respect to disasters and social media. I already mentioned the London Fire Brigade using Twitter. Another example is the Philippines. During the typhoon in the Philippines last December the government actually used Twitter and even suggested hashtags for people to use. Now that is brilliant. That is the kind of enlightened leadership that we need.
Another policy that I think is particularly enlightened is in Australia. The police in Queensland set up a hashtag called “mythbusters” in order to manage and respond to rumors. Every time they came up with a false piece of information or rumor, they would tweet that information out with the hashtag mythbusters. Then if people had any questions about a tweet that they saw, they could go to the hashtag and see if the police have mentioned it as a rumor.
There are some very clever ways that we have seen disaster and emergency services use technology, from the UK to the Philippines to Australia. It then becomes a matter of taking these really interesting innovations and turning them into standard operating procedures in the US.
Feature Photo: cc/gailjadehamilton