The 4 Ways People Use Social Media in Natural Disasters

Earlier this year I interviewed Brooke Fisher Liu with the University of Maryland about her research around how people used social media during natural disasters. She broke it down as this:

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.

I was reflecting upon this interview and how much I saw these four scenarios during the recent Boulder flood, which many in the community are still suffering from the aftermath. The Boulder Flood provided the perfect way to look at how people use social media in natural disasters.

1) Checking in with family and friends
People were using social media to let their friends and loved ones know they were safe, what their current status was, and offering (or soliciting) help. Across the community, there were people offering help to those who needed it whether they be strangers or family. For myself, I tried posting daily updates on Facebook, so I could keep people up to date and then focus on figuring out cleanup.

Social Media During Boulder Flood

2) Obtaining emotional support and healing

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram provided enormous amounts of emotional support along with concrete offers of help. The hashtag #BoulderStrong offered great encouragement to those suffering losses.

3) Determining disaster magnitude
Many of the people following the #BoulderFlood hashtag were following some of the official accounts including the @dailycamera (Boulder newspaper), @mitchellbyar (reporter at the Daily Camera), @boulderoem (Boulder Office of Emergency Management), @bouldercounty. As a community we were looking to hear about our homes, our schools, our neighbors and how they fared. We were looking to understand just how damaged our community was and how long it took to recover. One of the more interesting aspects I saw was people focused on determining road closures. While Boulder OEM was publishing their reports, many people were determining how to get in and out of Boulder. I can’t help but think how social data can represent more accurate information and real-time reporting than official sources.

4) Providing first-hand disaster accounts
While newspapers shared collections of horrifying images of the damages happening among Boulder floods, we were looking to our contacts on social media for first-hand accounts too. We were using our networks on Twitter to confirm what we were hearing online or even what we thought we were seeing.

Boulder Flood on Instagram

Our CTO Jud Valeski posted many shots of the flood on on his Instagram account that were picked up on the media. In fact, Michael Davidson at the Xconomy even wrote an article “Gnip Co-founder Jud Valeski on His Flood Shots Seen Around the World.”

The one aspect that really seemed to be missing from Brooke Fisher Liu’s research was the coordination that was taking across social media. People were offering to help strangers, organize cleanups, share tools, share bottled water and spare bedrooms, solicit donations, check on other people’s houses and a thousand other ways. Resource sharing was one of the major ways that social media played a role in the Boulder flood.

Bonus: Our data scientist Dr. Scott Hendrickson put together this visual of Boulder rainfall each month during the last 120 years. His methodology: 

“I downloaded 121 years of monthly precipitation data from NOAA and added an estimate for the final total September rainfall (looks like that will be 14-15 inches).  Each cell in the image represents one year.  The shade of blue indicates total yearly precipitation (lighter is more–see the legend at the right). The precipitation for each month is shown by the length of the blue wedge.  For comparison, each plot shows the overall monthly average in orange.”

(CLICK to get a larger size picture)