UT Researchers Study Role of Social Media in Aiding Hurricane Harvey Victims

When Hurricane Harvey made landfall near the end of August, it relentlessly pummeled the Gulf Coast as it stalled over the southern flank of the state. With Houston in its crosshairs, the storm quickly unleashed trillions of gallons of water, swallowing up entire swaths of the city. The inundation came quickly but would not let up for days, leaving thousands unprepared and in immediate danger. In short order, emergency dispatchers were overwhelmed. When those in need of rescue couldn’t get through to 911 call centers, many turned to social media to connect directly with volunteer forces and first responders.

UT researchers, hoping to draw lessons from these once-unconventional calls for help, have received a $168,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for “The Changing Nature of ‘Calls’ for Help with Hurricane Harvey: 911 and Social Media,” which will investigate this new phenomenon. The program began on Oct. 1 and is led by communications associate professor Keri Stephens and Dhiraj Murthy, journalism professor and director of the Computational Media Lab.

“It was crazy,” Stephens says of the project’s timeline, which transformed from idea to fully funded NSF grant in a matter of days. Before Harvey struck, she was working on a project examining the different outcomes between calling 911 or posting on social media for crimes and medical emergencies. Once the storm hit, she approached Murthy, and together, they wrote a project proposal to study the role of social media in aiding Hurricane Harvey victims and pitched it to UT. They received UT’s blessing and contacted program officers at NSF, who Stephens praised for their turnaround. “I’ve never seen someone move that fast,” she says. “It was pretty exhilarating.”

Tweets, videos, photos, and Facebook posts were shared across the internet and rescue information was compiled on Google Docs. Whereas in previous storms one might set a flare or spray paint their roof to be recognized, in Houston, a tweet with #SOSHarvey could work to greater effect. Stephens and Murthy are hoping to bank on this new generation of “calls” to inform future emergency responses.

Stage one of the three-pronged project will take Stephens and her researchers to Houston and Florida, where they will interview participants in a couple of different categories. The first group will be people who needed rescuing in hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Stephens aims to capture the actual words people say. “We’re going to ask them: ‘What media did you use when you needed to be rescued? Did you try to call 911? Did you post on social media?’” she says. She will also talk with members of the Cajun Navy and Texas Navy, volunteer organizations that planned, coordinated, and executed on-the-fly rescues in personal boats and jet-skis.

Back in Austin, Murthy will scrape data from multiple social media platforms to identify bona fide calls for help. In the final stage, Stephens and Murthy will look through the interview results and social media data to identify the most effective and successful methods to solicit help. Stephens hopes to find commonalities in the language, behavior, and strategies used by storm victims and rescuers.

They will then optimize these messages into a framework, have officials test the framework that they develop on a future emergency, and see if the results can be replicated on emergencies other than hurricanes.

“We’re going to see if we can find needles in haystacks,” Stephens says. “The needles are calls for help through multiple media, and the haystack is the fact that people can post on social media or absolutely anywhere.”

A downside of any social media-based emergency dispatch system is the sheer amount of data and difficulty identifying the authenticity of each claim. During Harvey, public officials and first responders urged people to stick to 911 calls, because it was difficult to monitor and sift through copious amounts of social media data.

In the future, call centers will be overworked, command and control centers will become further decentralized, and social media will allow both parties—rescue and the distressed—to bypass the bottleneck that public officials inevitably experience in capacity. In these situations, social media can be a boon to rescue and response.

“The good news is that a lot of organizations know that they need to change,” Stephens says. “There’s a willingness [to embrace this research] because they recognize this reality.” She hopes that the study’s findings will help ready authorities for future emergency situations in which social media figures prominently into the equation.

At a time when social media is rarely hailed for its ability to bring people together, Stephens sees a glimmer of hope in her research. “It’s exciting. It shows we can still help our neighbors,” she says. “It’s a big world, but social media can help.”

Photo by Sofia Sokolove.


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