Data Stories: Brooke Fisher Liu on Using Social Media in Natural Disasters

Data Stories is Gnip’s project to tell the stories of how social data is being used. This week we’re interviewing Brooke Fisher Liu from the University of Maryland about her research on how people use social media in natural disasters (PDF). You can follow Brooke on Twitter at @Bfliu. (Also, you can see our data scientists post on Twitter’s reaction to an earthquake in Mexico.)

Brooke Fisher Liu

Brooke Fisher Liu (photo courtesy of Anne McDonough)

1. When the wildfires broke out in Boulder, I found Twitter to be the best source of information hands down. What kind of information do you see people communicating about natural disasters?

During natural disasters people tend to use social media for four interrelated reasons: checking in with family and friends, obtaining emotional support and healing, determining disaster magnitude, and providing first-hand disaster accounts. A consistent research finding is that people are less likely to follow official, government sources on social media than their friends and family during disasters. I think that may change over time as government sources become more savvy about effectively using social media during disasters.

2. How is curated content such as Storify changing how people communicate during disasters?

This is one area where the research hasn’t caught up with practice yet. However, I think that social media sites that curate content such as Storify, Pinterest, or even Instagram are going to be major players in disaster communication in the future. One of the reasons people don’t turn to social media for disaster information is that the quantity of information is difficult to sift through and verify. Sites that curate content help cut through the sea of online information, and also provide a familiar, reliable source of information through online connections established before disasters.

3. You talked about people mobilizing on social media after natural disasters in your report. Do you ever see people respond in real time?

Absolutely. Real-time communication is one of the primary draws of social media during disasters. There are multiple examples of social media being the first source of disaster information such as for the 2011 Tuscaloosa tornadoes and the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

4. What surprised you the most about how people were using social media during natural disasters?

By far the biggest surprise is that people still turn to traditional media sources, especially broadcast journalism, as the most accurate source of disaster information. So, while they may first turn to social media, they still prefer traditional media during disasters. I think this may change over time, but it certainly was a surprise for me. Of course, journalists often rely on social media for disaster information, and I think over time we’ll see the distinction between traditional media and so-called new media blur even more.

5. How do you think the use of social media in natural disasters will evolve?

I think over time people will view social media as more trustworthy and thus turn to it as their primary source of information. I also think social media will continue to play a large role in facilitating disaster recovery by helping people connect with each other and rebuild communities. “Official sources” such as governments and the media will increasingly enhance their social media presence before disasters, which likely will position them to be not only the first, but also most trustworthy social media sources down the road. Perhaps most importantly I think social media will continue to surprise us by providing new communication capabilities during disasters that we can’t currently predict.

Thanks to Brooke for participating in the interview! Let us know in the comments if you have suggestions for other Data Stories. 

Previous Data Stories:

Rumi Chunara of HealthMap on identifying epidemics with social data

Hilary Mason, Chief Data Scientist of bitly

Blake Shaw, Data Scientist of Foursquare on product development with data science

Simon Rogers, data journalist at The Guardian 

Lada Adamic of Michigan on information networks

Mel Hogan of CU Boulder on digital archiving 

Liv Buli of Next Big Sound, the world’s first music data journalist

Sherry Emery of UIC, studying social data and smoking cessation

Annicka Campbell of SapientNitro on the Digital Love Projec