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How Social Media Can Help Natural-Disaster Victims

It's a lot of information overload, but there's some useful stuff in there too.
(Photo: Andreas Eldh/Flickr)

(Photo: Andreas Eldh/Flickr)

The advent of social media has certainly helped those watching earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters from afar. News organizations have used Twitter to report on earthquakes without sending journalists to the scene, as the Reuters Institute documented in 2011. Individuals can use searches and hashtags to find all the news they want—and they probably do, as "disaster" has been America's favorite news topic for decades.

But can social media actually help those on the ground?

In a paper published last September, a team of communications researchers gathered instances when natural-disaster victims used Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to learn crucial information and ask for help. Some examples recorded in the research:

  • People tweeted calls for help—or reassured followers they were safe—following the earthquake and tsunami in eastern Japan in 2011.
  • Internet "safe lists" helped people find each other in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
  • During the Oklahoma Grassfires of 2009, people used Twitter to keep up with the spread of the fires. During floods in Minnesota that same year, Twitter kept people abreast of flood warnings.

Still, it can hard to use Twitter after a disaster. The platform is flooded with concerned outsiders and media reports aimed at the concerned public, but not the victims themselves. How can victims filter out the messages they need? At least one group of researchers is working through the problem. In March, a team of three computer scientists from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile posted a paper to arXiv—an online database for papers that often aren't yet peer-reviewed—describing an app they had developed. The app pulls tweets with warnings and advice; estimates of damage; messages asking for help finding a person, or reporting a found person; and multimedia such as photos or video.