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Social media technologies can improve natural disaster resilience

Superstorm Sandy - Marblehead, MA
Superstorm Sandy - Marblehead, MA
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Extreme weather conditions have been occurring more frequently and more intensely in the past few years. Flooding, heat waves, blizzards, storms, sea level rise, and other climate challenge events have happened in North America, as well in other parts of the world. Populous urban areas are usually more volatile, where many people live and work in dense geographical proximity.

To improve cities’ resiliency in the face of natural disasters, crowd-sourcing can help manage the climate related risks, the discovery process, and the damage through the use of analysis tools. Social media platforms can improve communication, dissemination of crucial information, and help disaster management teams in the recovery.

For example, social media channels enable authorities, disaster management and law enforcement personnel to instruct residents and share information by delivering quick notifications of evacuation routes, emergency services, and messages, etc. Such crucial activities can be handled effectively through social technologies in slow moving disasters. However, in immediate fast-progressing incidents like earthquakes, tornados, etc., the effect of social network alerts may have a lesser impact.

Social media can enhance community involvement before an anticipated extreme natural incident (like an up-coming predictable storm), during the event, and afterward. The likelihood of reaching out through social media (for example, Twitter) to a larger number of residents before a storm occurs and sending out early warning, including calls for evacuation, may help. But social technologies would not solve the issue of why some people make the decision to stay, in spite of warnings of dangerous storms.

There is no recipe to when a storm happens or the time in the day. The 2013 blizzard in Boston last February occurred at end of the school day, when students were on their way home. Social media was used then to communicate with worried parents, who had no way of knowledge of where their children were.

At a discussion at CaFFEET last week at Stanford University, panelists agreed that social networks can improve communication response and can advance urban resiliency, however there are still privacy and policy issues to address.

Twitter provides filters through search capabilities, which enable to search for and track people's tweets during and after a disaster in order to gauge damage, reaction, recovery options, or help services effectiveness. For example, there were 20 million tweets when Hurricane Sandy took place in 2012. "Superstorm Sandy” was the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, as well as the second-costliest hurricane in United States history. In case of an outbreak after a storm, public health concern in a certain location is used to illustrate what can be mined from Twitter. The USGS Twitter Earthquake Dispatch (TED) system searches for and tracks people's tweets about sensing a potential earthquake. Such tweets can give USGS early warnings on earthquakes and alert emergency and early responder organizations. In this case, positive and negative tweets can be filtered to validate tweet streams.

Social technologies coupled with Big Data can promote natural disaster resilience. To understand how Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are used in disaster response and recovery, the GEO-CAN Consortium was created in early 2010, after Haiti’s devastating earthquake. GEO-CAN stands for Global Earth Observation - Catastrophe Assessment Network. The consortium aims to rapidly gather information about the impacts of natural disasters by harnessing the collective expertise of engineers, professionals, and other volunteers from around the world. The idea is to tackle damage assessment in the aftermath of a natural disaster (like an earthquake), by reducing the complex task of large-scale damage assessment into smaller tasks that various individuals can process independently and in parallel to achieve a faster overall assessment. The relevance of such approach became clearly obvious in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti.

GEO-CAN was conceived by ImageCat, Inc., an international risk management innovation company. Its mission is to support the global risk and disaster management needs of today, using advanced technologies.

How does GEO-CAN work?

GEO-CAN creates digital maps of the earthquake damage by viewing aerial and satellite imagery from the days following a natural disaster and comparing them to the same images taken before the strike. Then, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ images are analyzed based on damage interpretation guidelines. In Haiti, it was used to estimate and classify building, bridge and road damages based on high resolution aerial imagery in areas severely affected by the earthquake. The GEO-CAN system collects, processes, and analyzes very high resolution optical, thermal infra-red, topographic images allowing detailed visualization of houses, public buildings, cars, vegetation, and even people. Imagery and data from other collectors, such as Google and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), are also being analyzed.

In Haiti, the World Bank and GEO-CAN worked together in support of the reconstruction efforts after the earthquake. Here, the World Bank focused on infrastructure, reconstruction efforts, and rehabilitation work, how to allocate financial resources based on severity of damage, and the opportunity to build a better institutional capacity. Although in the case of an earthquake, the GEO-CAN system was not used to save lives, technologies like it help to create new tools to reduce earthquake risks worldwide.


1. ImageCat Inc. - An international risk management innovation company. The Long Beach, California company is a leading provider of advanced technologies for risk and disaster management, cutting-edge product development, consulting services, and research activities targeting decision support needs at all phases of the disaster management cycle.

Some of their clients include FEMA, U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, DARPA, NIST, and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Research clients include the National Science Foundation, the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center, and NASA. Others clients include insurance and finance institutions.


2. CaFFEET (California France Forum on Energy Efficiency Technologies) is an annual event organized by EDF, the Consulate General of France in San Francisco and PRIME. Its aim is to promote technical and scientific collaborations on energy efficiency between France and California, two leaders in achieving low-CO2 economies.


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