Social Media Mobile Phone Data in Disaster Management and the Implications That It Has on Vulnerable Populations

Destruction from hurricane Dorian showing debris and structural damage to buildings and trees in MARSH HARBOR, ABACO ISLAND, THE BAHAMAS. Credit: Shutterstock.
Destruction from hurricane Dorian showing debris and structural damage to buildings and trees in MARSH HARBOR, ABACO ISLAND, THE BAHAMAS. Credit: Shutterstock.
  • Opinion by Hannah Tuckman
  • Inter Press Service

Since its conception in 2015 there have been advancements in the availability of tools such as the use of social media and mobile data which will allow citizens to be at the forefront of disaster management decision-making.

As social media has cemented its permanent spot in society, it is integral that emergency management sees social media and mobile phone data as an asset that can aid in all phases of the disaster cycle.

The widespread adoption of mobile phones and social media platforms has made it possible for people to share information about disasters in real-time, which can help emergency responders to better understand the situation on the ground and respond more effectively. There is a tendency for the public to turn to social media to share information or seek information during a disaster, including sharing posts, requesting help, and sharing the status on critical infrastructure.

Social media can also be used to push out messages from emergency officials to quickly communicate with a large audience and coordinate relief efforts.

There are some mobile applications that are used to identify areas of need and direct resources. With the increasing use of social media, it is important to consider the ethical and practical considerations on using these tools, particularly for vulnerable populations. Access to social media and mobile data is not universal, leaving out some of the most vulnerable communities. There are also concerns about privacy and misinformation in a time where communication channels are already strained.

Hurricane Dorian, South Carolina

First, we will look at an example of Hurricane Dorian and how it hit South Carolina. Hurricane Dorrian was a very powerful category 5 hurricane which had hit the Bahamas and was for them the most intense one on record. It also went on to be the most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record with winds as high as 185 mph. It impacted also on the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico before landing in the United States.

A number of US states Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia prepared for its arrival by declaring a state of emergency.

The South Carolina Emergency Management utilized their Twitter and Facebook to spread messaging both before the hurricane and during it about weather and related updates. This worked well because news outlets knew which social media messaging to follow, and they knew the credibility of that information.

Where South Carolina Emergency Management ran into some issues was when it came to private citizens also utilizing social media tools such as twitter who would then tweet at the emergency managers calling for help.

The local first responders didn't know who had received that information and if telecommunications had already received a call, creating a sense of confusion. Additionally, South Carolina Emergency Management didn't have the capacity to help with the influx of volume that they had through this new social media messaging capabilities.

There is an interesting opportunity here for improved Disaster Response because of three factors.

Firstly, there are new ways of collecting data. Data mining techniques have been revolutionizing every sector of society, and Emergency Management is not an exception to this. We live in an age of big data and there's an opportunity for transformative change in disaster management because better decisions can be made due to this influx of data.

As a society, we are transitioning from an era of data scarcity to an era of data abundance, and you can even see this in lower- and middle-income countries where we're now able to gather data in areas that were otherwise relatively data scarce. This is coupled with climate change which is increasing both the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.

Currently, the annual number of people killed from natural disasters is around 60,000 and that is expected to increasingly rise due to climate change – in many cases these are the most vulnerable in society. To help address this, there is a growing focus on a shift to a social perspective to disaster management. This can be best expressed as how and with which tools do we support the most vulnerable when a disaster occurs.

There are three types of data relevant to the discussion.

The first type of data is directed data and that's operator focused data capturing technology on a person or place. When you think of directed data, you are likely to think of traditional surveillance data cameras and remote sensing.

Automated data is collectively or possibly collected through the normal operations of a system. You can think of mobile phone use like call records, web searches and credit card use.

Lastly you have volunteered data, and that's data that's actively or passively produced by citizens. That is looking at crowdsourcing data and social media data which are very rich because it can tell you a lot of information beyond just an individual level.

Looking at a couple different uses of social media and mobile phone data in disasters.

During Hurricane Harvey (2017), a picture of many elderly individuals in a flooded nursing home was tweeted by a man named Timothy McIntosh that lived in Florida. This is the first time that we're able to see social media being used due to an overrun 9-1-1 system. Citizens turned to Twitter to reach out for help because they couldn't get in contact with traditional telecommunications.

This picture was tweeted and then after about 2,000 likes and many retweets, Emergency Management officials began evacuating these 18 people in this nursing home, and after every 30 minutes the emergency officials were tweeting at Timothy McIntosh or privately messaging him letting him know about the status updates with this nursing home. However, there is concern of who's using Twitter to reach out in emergencies. In some studies, there is concern that the Twitter users are typically white male, more educated and living in urban areas.

This began a broader conversation of who's getting left out through using this means of emergency response messaging.

A different approach – SMS data

Looking at open-source two-way SMS data and there's two different platforms that will be discussed.

Frontline SMS is interesting because you don't need a lot to get started. All one needs is power, the internet, a computer that can be used for a hub, a SIM card and then free software and it's able to turn a laptop into a central communication hub to facilitate messaging. This relies on a text messaging service which is useful because it is easier and more accessible.

In a pilot, Frontline SMS partnered with Strengthening Participatory Organizations in Pakistan following monsoon flooding. They use Frontline to both receive and send messages about complaints or requests for help.

They were also able to receive responses and requests for help. To enable this to be a proactive effort, volunteers had to go out before the disaster to the communities and explain how they wanted them to use this number to text.

What they would receive was information from the individuals including their names, contact information and their addresses so when these individuals message this number it would pop up information about them and better help the response when they would send responders out to those areas. The messages were converted from Arabic into a numbering system, so it was easier to categorize.

RapidPro SMS is another program that was developed by the UN Childrens Fund (UNICEF). It was originally used for faster delivery of blood sample testing, but it's turned into flexible and customizable software that can be used, with the most common application being in education systems.

However, there is broad applicability for disaster response. Rapid Pro SMS was used for early flood warning systems to send audio messages in Cambodia. They decided to use audio messages because of literacy challenges in the area. The program currently covers over 200,000 households.

Crowdsourcing Data

These are two different projects that are interrelated. The first one is Mission 4636 which is a number that people could use where they would report something that they saw requiring urgent attention. It was used during a 2010 earthquake in Haiti. People would text this number, and that information would then be translated, categorized, and geo-located. Then you could extract this missing person information, so responders knew where to respond.

However, an issue that they had with it was that it was a one-way system. People would say that they needed help, but there was no way of knowing when this aid would actually come or how the message was being received. If the responders needed more information, they couldn't text back that number and get that extra information they needed.

The Ushahidi project originally began because of violent incidents following a Kenyan presidential election, but now it's been applied to natural disaster responses. Volunteers will put SMS data, emails and web-based submissions onto a map for the general public to actually see what incidents are happening in their area and they can click there for more information. It would be used to coordinate with responders to go to those specific areas.

Which subsequently ran into a problem with citizens sending the information, it would be translated and posted in English. The populations that they were trying to serve didn't speak English, so there was a big gap in who could actually use it, and the people that were sending out the messages couldn't even understand their own messages they put onto this platform.

The Ushahidi map can also scrub Facebook and Twitter, so they could automatically put tweets and Facebook posts onto the map to see those, as well. They realized that there were five key traits that made this platform possible.

  1. The technology was simple.
  2. It was accessible in areas that had low connectivity.
  3. It was accessible by many different platforms so that you could use your phone or your laptop.
  4. There's an emphasis on the verification of information.
  5. The mixed funding sources also helped it be successful.
There are many implications that these different platforms have for vulnerable populations. First, it is foundational to understand the US Federal Emergency Management Agency - FEMA's definition of vulnerable populations because there's so many different definitions. FEMA defines vulnerable populations as:

“a population whose members may have additional needs before, during, and after an incident in functional areas including, but not limited to, maintaining independence, communication, transportation, supervision and medical care. Individuals in need of additional response assistance include those who have disabilities who are from diverse cultures who had limited English proficiency, who are non-English speaking and who are transportation disadvantaged.”

This is a very broad definition, but it is a useful one to use here because all of these populations that are listed would be affected by the use of the different platforms noted here.

Also, in the USA there’s also the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) toolkit which can be helpful in accessibility during disaster management.

Chapter seven of their toolkit is about emergencies and disasters, and under that there's a requirement that officials make notification systems accessible to people with disabilities. There is an opportunity to incorporate these platforms of open communication, not just notification systems to be under that guidance.

Problems with Social Media and Disaster Management for Vulnerable Communities

The lack of trust that exists in some of these populations that are considered vulnerable is very important to understand. There are historical incidents where their trust has been violated. A lot of vulnerable populations do have a lack of trust in emergency officials, and that could be exacerbated by using social media without their involvement and consultation in its approach and implementation. This is because there's a lot of misinformation on these platforms.

There's also the question of who is using these platforms and who has access, which leads to literacy and access challenges which could also lead to an underrepresentation of vulnerable communities in emergency communications.

Through a study, researchers looked at who actually tweets in disasters scenarios, and it showed that it works for the people that are physically vulnerable (people in the physical path of the disaster), but not necessarily good for the socially vulnerable. By using these different platforms and methods of using data in your response, it could create a widening gap in care.

A few takeaways

If you're going to use social media, understand that Twitter and any social media isn't a neutral platform, and it doesn't represent the whole population. Public education needs to be used before a disaster on a sunny day to teach people how you want them to interact with the platform or different tools that you're trying to use.

Address the issue of “does the Disaster Management Team have the capacity and staff capable to handle the information coming in?”.

If you're getting this max influx of messaging that you can't handle, you will then violate that trust of your vulnerable communities. This is really delicate in this field of work.

Lastly, you can't just rely on any of any of the things that I've explained. You can't rely on it because if there's an electricity grid outage, all of them are dependent on that. If the electricity grid is taken down and you were only relying on these tools, then you would be creating a larger vulnerability for yourself.

© Inter Press Service (2023) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service