Desperately Seeking Usable Information; Microblogging in Public Health and Disaster Relief

Microblogging is a form of social media that allows users to rapidly share and exchange small amounts of text and media. flu tweetMicroblogging 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.hinijpeg

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?” smand disHowever, 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.images

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 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)


5 thoughts on “Desperately Seeking Usable Information; Microblogging in Public Health and Disaster Relief

  1. Pros: Use of a visual chart to display numerical data, very eye catching. Use of humor (Ex. pig wearing a mask). Content – this contains some great data about the power of Twitter to dissemminate information.
    Constructive feedback: I would like to hear more of this author’s “voice.” I think this is the beauty of blogging – it can be casual, raw, and provides a different perspective than a journal article or news report.

  2. Great resources – they are so helpful for an explorer of social media use for health! Very good and humorous visuals to support the blog’s narrative! Research related to public health application for Twitter has been grown in past decade. Recent publications are found in major medical professional magazines: Clinical Practice, American Journal of Infection Control, British Medical Bulletin, Journal of Medical Internet Research, Preventive Medicine and others. As you have mentioned, medical professionals agree that social media can be used for engaging the public and communicating key public health interventions, and serve as an important tool for public health surveillance. Among its limitations is poor specificity. Twitter is relatively new datasource, therefore proper metrics and methods for its data mining are in continuing development. It is helpful to know about digital pioneers, like Ushahidi, an organization providing analysis of microblogs. It would be great to see their examples of work! Appreciate your innovative approach to improve data usability and verification. The header appears to be combining 2 topics.

  3. Very detailed blog. Good description of microblogging (important to assume that your reader does not know what it is). You then proceeded to explain that Twitter was a microblog and some accompanying statistics. Very effective format overall. I liked your four step process on how to assimilate data. Your points were short and to the point, very much like a microblog.

  4. Great post on how a public health effort used Twitter to increase awareness of their effort. I think you raised a great perspective from the article of being untrustworthy and possibly inaccurate from microblogging of information from grassroots and peer-generated. These are valid concerns, but I think your four tips were helpful in providing suggestions on how to utilize that information and still keep its integrity. It will be interesting to see new ways organizations will use Twitter and other forms of social media for serious efforts such as outbreaks. I think there is a lot of potential, but as you pointed out, there should be some parameters and safe-holds in place to ensure accurate information gets to the right people.

    I would suggest for the formatting of this blog to make sure everything is left-aligned so that it looks a little cleaner and bold your four points. Those are your major takeaways and I think they are a little hidden right now. Great use of photos in this post though!

  5. I liked this post and thought the content was interesting. The length was about right and the images broke up the body of the text without being too intrusive.

    I liked hearing about the new ways to use microblogging. As you point out, ensuring some level of validity to microblogged data for public consumption in an outbreak situation might seem a challenge to public health. Maybe much of the challenge is the conceptual shift. Perhaps the grass roots public health information will emerge as a sort of Wikipedia model as described by Shirky, in which the information will be ‘a process, not a product.’ ‘In order to improve, the good edits simply have to outweigh the bad ones.”

    I thought the Ushahidi was an interesting link. I had never heard of it and its interesting that it is open source too.

    One suggestion, you might consider including hyperlinks to you references in the actual body of the text. I also think bolding some of the main phrases in your list of suggestions might be helpful to the reader.

    A good job and a thought-provoking post.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s