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Starbird Earns Second Place in Random Hacks of Kindness Event Competition


December 2009

A social media idea dubbed "Tweak the Tweet" earned University of Colorado at Boulder graduate student Kate Starbird second place in a national technology competition focused on improving communication during disasters.

The first-ever "Random Hacks of Kindness" event, held last month in Mountain View, California, was sponsored by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

Starbird's winning idea proposed using Twitter to facilitate communications between citizens and emergency workers during a crisis. Emergency organizations responding to a disaster such as a fire or flood could put out Twitter messages, called "tweets", urging followers to tweet using a specific format and conventions so that real-time information about the incident is conveyed in a way that is useful to both emergency crews and the general public, Starbird explained.

Kate Starbird

"The idea requires no new technology whatsoever," said Starbird, a National Science Foundation graduate fellow who is pursuing her doctorate in technology, media and society in CU's ATLAS program. "A person just has to slightly alter how they're putting down their message in terms of the language they're using. By formatting the information a little differently, it helps automate the processing and aggregation of those messages."

Through consistent use of "hashtags," "retweets" and other formatting guidelines, Starbird said emergency workers could use messages from the public to communicate information about shelter locations and to develop maps showing the location and movement of a fire or a flood.

Starbird, a former Stanford All-American and professional basketball player, conceived of "Tweak the Tweet" during the two-day event, which brought together computer programmers from across the country to develop tools for improved emergency response communication. While most teams stayed up all night developing their ideas, Starbird's brainchild came to her just two hours before she had to present it, during a conversation with fellow event participant Jeannie Stamberger of Mountain View.

"We paired Jeannie's idea to use technology to train citizens on the ground to provide information during an emergency with my idea to use an existing technology (Twitter) and existing behavior within that technology," Starbird said. The team won second place in the competition for the idea, which Starbird described as unique because it considered both technology and human behavior in its solution.

Starbird and fellow CU graduate student Aaron Schram attended the event on behalf of Project EPIC (Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis), a $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant project focused on disaster and technology for civilian use. CU-Boulder received $2.4 million of the grant.

Starbird said "Tweak the Tweet" builds on the research done by Computer Science Assistant Professor Leysia Palen and others at CU on how people use social media to communicate during a crisis. Palen agreed, saying "Kate's idea is terrific -- and it comes out of a whole orientation that we have on this grant. We're trying to find high-tech and low-tech solutions for advancing emergency response, and bringing graduate students, undergraduate students and faculty together from different disciplines is what makes these ideas possible."

Project EPIC is submitting a paper on "Tweak the Tweet" for possible publication. Starbird intends to further develop the idea as well as complementary technologies that would allow the practice to be implemented in a crisis event in the near future.

The text of this article was provided by the University of Colorado Boulder Office of Media Relations and News Services.
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