US: A group of Harvard Medical School researchers who looked at information flows on Twitter during the Boston bombings argue that the network could be a valuable tool for emergency workers and others during such disasters. Their research was published by PLOS One Currents.
Entitled “Twitter as a Sentinel in Emergency Situations: Lessons from the Boston Marathon Explosions,” the study used the public Twitter API and looked at a set of messages whose geolocation data showed that they were posted within a radius of about 35 miles from the Boston Marathon finish line. The researchers looked for messages that contained words beginning with ‘explos’ or ‘explod,’ as well as ‘bomb,’ and found that some were posted within minutes of the explosions, well before any official sources.
Because the use of these terms was grouped so tightly together around the site of the bombings, and occurred so quickly after the explosions, the researchers argue in their paper that using these kinds of tools to track certain terms could help emergency workers discover where people need their help — and help police and others track down what exactly happened and when.
“Because of their proximity to the event and content of their postings, these individuals might be witnesses to the bombings or be of close enough proximity to provide helpful information. These finely detailed geographic data can be used to localise and characterise events assisting emergency response in decision-making,” the paper stated.
The study adds that “caution in the use of social media reports is warranted” because social-media data can provide false-positive reports that could have negative effects. But at the same time, the researchers note that “crowd-sourced information may uniquely provide extremely timely initial recognition of an event and specific clues as to what events may be unfolding.”