The National Science Foundation has awarded more than $2 million to
University of Colorado Boulder researchers to take leading-edge
investigations on the public's use of social media during crisis situations to
the next level of research and development.
The grant to Assistant Professor Leysia Palen
and her colleagues in the Department of Computer Science is aimed at developing
a suite of specialized mobile and Web applications to help citizens and
officials during times of disasters and large-scale emergencies. The four-year
project will synthesize and augment citizen-generated information and
corroborate it with authoritative sources.
The goal is to make spontaneously generated information by citizens during
emergencies more accessible, comprehensible and trustworthy to help officials
and people on the ground make safe decisions and coordinate with family,
neighbors and officials during times of crisis.
CU-Boulder will receive $2.4 million of the nearly $2.9 million grant.
Professor Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine
will receive $480,000 to work collaboratively with Palen and her colleagues
The team will study and determine the best ways to integrate information from
multiple social media sources to help users assess the context, validity,
source, credibility and timeliness of the information. The ability of computers
to process the textual information generated by social media and issues of
security and trust concerning that information will play a large role in the
project, as will knowledge about human-computer interaction, emergency
management and implications for national policy.
Palen said the new work is motivated by past research on the special
information-seeking skills people demonstrate during emergency events.
"When situations are dire, and the magnitude of an emergency affects a region,
we know that people are quite resourceful at doing what they can to survive and
to help others," she said. "Today this means turning to online sources to
collate information from many places to try to make the best decisions
Palen and her colleagues have conducted extensive research on people's use of
blogs and other social networking sites during crisis events and found that
these sources generate information that helps people construct "situational
awareness" of an event that can sometimes be surprisingly accurate. Their
research on crisis events has included hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes,
as well as two Middle East wars and campus shootings in the United States.
The newly funded research will include more investigations about how people use
social media during large-scale emergency events around the world. The research
team will study events that occur in regions of the world where English, Arabic
and Mandarin Chinese are spoken, and incorporate these languages and cultural
differences into considerations for the new technology.
"It is important that we provide automated ways to check the vast
amount of information generated during crises against multiple sources,
and align citizen-generated information with official information, so that
all responders -- lay responders, professional responders and victims --
are working from a cooperative and shared point of view," Palen said.
"This is critical to the future of emergency response."
This view is gaining ground, with new FEMA Administrator
Craig Fugate recently expressing his agency's goals of
incorporating citizen participation and social media in future emergency
response activity. But both researchers and emergency managers realize that
the problem is a difficult one. Palen and her colleagues hope that this
research will make such a future a practical reality.
Primary collaborators include Mark of UCI, who has studied information exchange
by Iraqi and Israeli citizens in wartime; and CU-Boulder professors
a computer science specialist in Web engineering and information integration;
James Martin and
Martha Palmer, computational linguists;
Douglas Sicker, a telecom policy and network security expert;
and Dirk Grunwald, a systems and security expert.
Industrial and government partners include Collective Intellect, a social media
aggregation company in Boulder, and the Emergency Preparedness and Response
Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The text of this article was provided by the University of Colorado Boulder
Office of Media Relations and News Services.