Microblogging is a form of social media that allows users to rapidly share and exchange small amounts of text and media. Microblogging leads to rapid communication of information which then drives shared awareness among users. In his book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organization, Shirky describes shared awareness as “the ability of many different and groups to understand a situation, and to understand who else has the same understanding” Stated another way, shared awareness is when groups of people have shared information and are able to act on it.
Twitter® is a popular microblogging social media tool that has been used in public health and disaster relief world-wide. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the CDC used Twitter® by collecting 48 million tweets over a three month period to accurately predict locations of flu outbreaks. Twitter® was also used as a communication modality to update the public on wait times at flu vaccination clinics and for the distribution of government alerts. Hughes and Palen (2009) provided a descriptive account of Twitter® use during emergencies and disaster relief. They concluded that Twitter® is a potential communication modality for fast and efficient dissemination of information contributed by bystanders and those affected by a disaster, as it is happening.
Yet, most large-scale, international humanitarian relief organizations have largely considered microblogging through Twitter® and other social media to be unverifiable and unusable for decision making. As Palen stated, “How can publicly available, grassroots, peer-generated information be deemed to be trustworthy, secure and accurate, so that it can be leveraged and aligned with official information sources for optimal, local decision-making by members of the public?” However, microblogged information from grassroots and peer-generated has proven to be useful at the beginning of emergency response efforts where information is limited and the risks of ignoring a threat and failing to respond outweighs the risks of acting on an incorrect information.
In order to not miss an opportunity to use microblogged information in public health and relief efforts, I have identified four ways microblogged data can be assimilated into the into the process of usable and reliable decision making within humanitarian relief organizations:
1) Share data standards with trusted volunteer and technical communities working in the relief sector so that they can contribute the appropriate kind of data to the appropriate kind of situation or decision making. This organic network of humanitarian microblogging users could serve as a middle ground between traditional data sources and unfiltered microblogging data.
2) Sort and categorize microblogging information from this trusted organic network that is potentially action-worthy
3) Translate that information into an understandable and useable data form for decision making
4) Shift some of the burden of establishing microblogged data’s usefulness and reliability to outside organizations. Organizations like Ushahidi specialize in processing microblogged data and could help encourage humanitarian relief organizations to use these microblogging sources for decision making.
In time, outsourcing gathered microblogged information for use in public health and disaster relief efforts may prove to be the most cost-effective and valuable utilization of microblogged data.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). Social media at CDC. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/socialmedia/campaigns/h1n1/#Microblogs July 24, 2015.
Hughes, A. L., & Palen, L. (2009). Twitter adoption and use in mass convergence and emergency events. International Journal of Emergency Management, 6(3-4), 248-260.
Palen, L., Anderson, K., Mark, G., Martin, J., Sicker, D., Palmer, M., Grunwald, D. (2010) A Vision for
Technology-Mediated Support for Public Participation & Assistance in Mass Emergencies & Disasters. Association of Computing Machinery and British Computing Society’s 2010 Conference on Visions of Computer Science.
Shirky, C Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organization,Penguin Press, New York, NY (2008)