We've seen how social media can be more than just a place to share pictures of your dinner. It can play an important role in cultural movements, political discourse, tracking diseases and now, researchers have discovered that it can play a crucial role in natural disaster relief by predicting the true impact in just a few hours.
An international study by researchers at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M), NICTA (National Information Communications Technology Australia) and the University of California in San Diego has found that analysis of social network activity during and in the hours following a natural disaster can quickly reveal the extent of damage.
"Twitter, the social network which we have analyzed, is useful for the management, real-time monitoring and even prediction of the economic impact that disasters like Hurricane Sandy can have," says one of the researchers, Esteban Moro Egido, of UC3M.
Hurricane Sandy was the perfect chance for the researchers to collect data because it was a very large storm that was being tracked and they could monitor Twitter for information before, during and after it hit areas. Hundreds of millions of geo-located tweets were sent by Twitter users referencing the storm in 50 metropolitan areas. The researchers were able to track the movement and impact of storm through Twitter activity as it pummeled the East Coast.
The storm caused more damage than any other is U.S. history with an economic impact of 50 billion dollars. The researchers compared the Twitter data they collected with official FEMA data concerning the level of aid grants for different areas.
The researchers found that there was a strong correlation between the mean per capita social network activity and the mean per capita economic damage for each area. The danger and actual disaster impact was directly observable in real time by monitoring the social network.
The researchers have gone on to verify that the same correlation exists in floods, tornados and storms. The researchers believe that social networks could be a critical prediction tool for the damage of natural disasters, giving governments the ability to see where and how much relief will be needed much more quickly. It can also be used to see where people are in need of immediate help so that first responders can be dispatched to the hardest hit areas.
The researchers say this finding is especially important as we face an increase in natural disasters due to climate change.
"We believe that this is going to cause even more natural disasters and, therefore, the use of social networks will allow us to obtain useful supplementary information," Egido said. "We are trying to see if there is a relationship between activity on social networks and climate change which will affect us in the future".
If social networks are monitored, more lives could be saved and the right amount of aid will reach the areas that need it much more quickly.