Social Data: A Beacon in Natural Disasters

Social media for natural disasters and health epidemics provides a valuable window into what is happening on the ground.  Social media data can help track diseases and serve as a powerful method of communication letting people know what is happening. Healthcare is just beginning to understand the value of big data.

Google first gained attention for helping to predict influenza outbreaks based on search volume but scientists from Bristol University took it a step further with Twitter — they analyzed 50 million geo-tagged tweets related to flu and their results nearly perfectly correlated with national health statistics from the CDC.

Social data went a step further when scientists used Twitter to predict cholera outbreaks in Haiti. In 2010, a 7.0 earthquake ravaged the small island of Haiti, a third-world country with meager infrastructure. The island began preparing for disease outbreaks, specifically cholera. During the height of the cholera outbreak, the island was losing people at the rate of 50 people a day and a total of more than 3,000 people were killed that year. Scientists began tracking cholera outbreaks via Twitter and found that social data could beat the official reports by up to two weeks. As one of the scientists noted, “Not all cholera patients go to hospitals to be counted officially.”

This isn’t the first time that social data has played an important role after an earthquake.  During the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake in 2011, social media played an important role in helping to identify how people could obtain medicine for their chronic illnesses that still needed treatment but so many of the traditional pharmaceutical supply chains were cut off.

Like in the Japanese earthquake, there is immense potential for social data to help emergency responders during a disaster. During the Fourmile Canyon Fire in Boulder in 2010, VisionLink provided fire crews and managers a real-time view into what was happening on the ground by layering geo-tagged Tweets and Flickr images they got from Gnip onto a Google map of the area. With this information, emergency workers were better able to see what was happening on the ground.

Studies have proven that people rely on information communicated via social media in emergencies. A study from the University of Western Sydney found that people relied on official news channels and social media and shared and re-tweeted the most useful information. The authors of the study believe that social media helps people to not feel alone as well as to help getting the message out. Which also echoes a study put together by the Red Cross that shows one-third of the U.S. population said they would use social media to let their loved ones know they were safe. Which is exactly why Red Cross has created their own social media control room powered by Radian6.

If you’d like to learn more about social data in natural disasters, contact

VisionLink Map of Boulder Fires