Social computing responses to disasters

Leysia Palen

In our physical social networks, neighbourhoods and neighbours matter – and our digital neighbours matter too.

Leysia Palen is Professor of Computer Science, and Professor and Founding Chair of the newly established Department of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. We talk of crisis informatics and the transformational role that social computing can play in the way society responds to mass emergencies and disasters.

Talking points

Obligation to think of computing as vision of future that is not simply entertaining but one through which we can engage with natural environment and lead more responsible lives

Everyday connected technologies

Default settings on calendars…culture of environment in which technology is created in gets baked into technology itself…colonising values to different places.

Technology is hugely value laden and they may or may not be your values

In a crisis, everyone goes into an intensified information seeking mode

The information gap is an opportunity for the crowd to help

Disaster – there’s a hazard that exceeds what the emergency personnel can respond to…even the emergency responders don’t have all the information – a disruption to social order across the board

We adapt to the events that are happening – what are the salient problems for which research will have something useful to say?

We have an ethical responsibility, an obligation to do something that matters

We have to be agile to think about what is useful research as these different events happen around the world

We wouldn’t presume to think we can be useful for something we can’t understand…so we try to partner with people on the ground

We’ve been tracking how social media crisis behaviour has changed

We try to debunk from the start – the movie panic – the media and twitter focusses on the sensational and silly, but there’s a great deal of stuff underneath the surface

Finding it can be difficult, but those who need it, they find it and do something with it – they’re persistent because they need it.

People are looking for the signal in the noise , and we need to separate the global audience versus the geovulnerable

Who people communicate with during a disaster is different than before

They’re looking for individuals who can provide information

Individuals in neighbourhoods who are able to localise the messages from emergency management

But when people are in hugely stressful situations they’re not able to manage the information, then we get people on the outside who want to help, and curate information – increasing the signal of the good information.

Multiple forms of self organising communication mechanisms

A research focus is how do we amplify the signal?

Emergency management social media protocols…those that work best are those that.. might have a list of ten but review and say these five worked, and these other things…responding to a changing environment

Local emergency management groups, they need to perceive themselves as being experimental in this as well

The practices around outgoing messaging are becoming very good, but listening strategy…they’re not listening.

They’re very good at listening well, but how do you listen well when you through social media don’t know if the people who need help most are able to express themselves

A terrible situation…but people remain analytical, if anything because of the desperate situation they’re working within they have to become concise and precise about their actions

The idea that people can’t work through things, that they’re helpless – this is dangerous – people have always been their own advocates in a disaster, so we need to be careful not to project these helpless myths onto social media then we’re not really able to see the potential

Social media is a stage upon which people are acting, it’s a place of convergence. So even though we can see the jokes, the dark humour and the sensational stuff, but underneath that is really important work being done.

So our job as researchers developing better technologies for our future is amplifying that important work

We need to pay attention to practice – how people actually do things.

Things happen in situations, and our technology has to be able to adapt to that.

Working in disaster response…lends itself to policy design, and that, like technology creation it prefers rational ideas… disasters are disorderly and we want them to be orderly…but the way we can look at how new characteristics (such as social media) is by looking at how we actually practice them in a disaster

The emergence of best practice technology solutions…we’re in a state of massive change, it would be comforting to have all the answers, but we can’t presume we can freeze it all tomorrow and that’s the answer – but we’re in a stage of invention

We need to prepare, but we must be willing to be inventive, be adaptable and be not quite right and iterate

We see stronger responses – higher resilience – from areas that are prepared with good social networks already – it is a good thing to extend that to our technological practice

In our physical social networks, neighbourhoods and neighbours matter – and our digital neighbours matter too.

Haiti…wasn’t so much social media from on the ground…but the international response…open street maps, digital humanitarianism…the attention brought to events through observant and curious audience might start out as concern and oogling but can and does transform into real help

People want to do more than digital prayers and clicking for donations – but they want to do more.

There’s new attention to idea that disasters and management of resilience is both a highly localised activity – communities need to solve these things for themselves – but there’s also this outward facing, attachments to other communities

There’s something about this pleasant tension between this highly local and this global set of relationships

People want to help themselves they do want to help others – they want to feel connected to many others and to our local communities

(what can we learn from crisis to the longer, slow burn crisis?) Hurricanes, wildfire and so on are going to become more violent, more frequent…how do we communicate risk? how do we understand risk to our planet, to our children and grandchildren.

How do we understand risk so that we can change our behaviour?

It’s about communicating risk but it is also about communicating solutions to different populations.

(Activist?) I am an activist, I’m an activist of knowledge, of reality, of sober and sombre understandings of our relationship with our technological world, and each other, and I am sympathetic to the problems that we face.

As a researcher I try not to bring any presumptions into the questions that I bring there but to bring a critical eye to bore through the rhetoric of things like disaster which are politically charged.

I pursue the truth – sounds pretty trite I know – and I try to communicate that. I feel very strongly about finding the right words and communicating that for different audiences, so in that way I am an activist.

(Motivation?) I want to know, I want others to know, I want us to be concious and conscientious.

(Challenges?) We’ve been working in Crisis Informatics for 10 years, we’ve made a lot of inroads with students being able to take on more complex problems – I want to get beyond dismantling the myths and work even deeper on the problems.

As new chair of department I want to create a curriculum for our undergraduate students and have them be able to address a range of societal problems as well as commercial challenges, but in this way that deals with data in ethical, mathematically responsible, ethnographically responsible ways.

(Miracle?) That my children and all of our children wouldn’t have to worry about disasters and the effects of climate change. And that if they do worry, which they will, that we’ve left them the tools – intellectual and built – to mitigate whatever it is that we’ve given them.

(Advice?) Be attentive. Don’t presume. Be watchful for how technology is driving us in particular directions, but also don’t be over-cautious about that either.

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Author: Samuel Mann

An Associate Professor with a background in both IT and land management, Sam has developed applied IT for regional government, crown research institutes and large organisations. He has taught computing since 1994, at Otago Polytechnic Information Technology since 1997, including five years as Head of Department. Sam has published over 150 conference and journal papers in the fields of augmented experiences; sustainability; and computer education. Sam is responsible for the development of Education for Sustainability at Otago Polytechnic where we are committed to every graduate thinking and acting as a sustainable practitioner

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