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During emergency situations like severe weather or terrorist attacks, local officials and first responders have an urgent need for accessible, reliable and real-time data. A new method is being developed for identifying local social media users and collecting the information they post during emergencies.

Rob Grace, a doctoral student in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), and his colleagues at the Center for Crisis, Community, and Civic (3C) Informatics are exploring how social media can be leveraged in these emergency situations. According to, the group hopes to make it easier for emergency management and response personnel to monitor and disseminate content across social media. This approach can help to support situational awareness among officials as well as more effectively share important information with local citizens, such as evacuation routes and status updates regarding critical infrastructure like water and power.

“The big-picture object would be to design a tool that would allow an official to monitor publicly available information on social media in order to inform their decision making,” said Grace. “To coordinate crisis response, you have to have a presence in a digital space.”

Officials now informally use social media to access information about their communities, yet they often lack technological capacities to access the information they are seeking. Grace believes they can more effectively monitor social media before and during emergencies; however, the first difficulty involves obtaining the right information.

The team defined three main approaches to using social media, specifically Twitter, as a monitoring tool: geographical information—called “geotags”—that marks the location from

where content originated; keyword and content searches; and a method they introduced as “social triangulation.”

While attached geotags can be included in tweets to help officials identify a user’s location, less than 3 percent of all tweets use them, leaving locations for the remaining 97 percent unidentifiable.

The second approach using keywords and content searches is slightly more effective, but still poses problems. In most research a combination of geotags and keywords is utilized in order to identify local information.

A third and rarely explored approach, that the team refers to as “social triangulation,” identifies local social media users and the information they post according to the characteristics of their social networks. This is the answer Grace believes will allow officials to pinpoint people in a local area. It’s based off the notion that while users may not include explicit geographical information through geotags, their social networks can hold many clues to their whereabouts.

“It’s a very simple observation that we can look at someone’s social network and infer their location based on the characteristics of that network,” said Grace. “People in a local area tend to follow local organizations. This suggests a method of some utility.”

The theory is that by developing a preexisting dissemination plan, groups can send out their messages via Twitter to reach a wider audience.

With the public’s increased reliance on smartphones, Grace acknowledges that the first option for many to find and receive information is in their pockets. If social media is people’s go-to news source, he explained, then emergency officials must participate. This type of collaboration also allows citizens to play an active role in their community preparedness.