News Column

Social Media Experts to Speak on Technology's Benefits During Disasters

March 14, 2013

Staci Matlock

Harrumph all you want, technophobes and social media scoffers. Those 140 character tweets, YouTube videos and mobile map apps could help you survive the next disaster, says an expert who studies the way people utilize evolving social media technology during a crisis.

Leysia Palen, associate professor of computer science at the University of Colorado, is intrigued by the way crowds and emergency managers are using social media to organize, communicate and help each other during disasters. Palen will talk about her research at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Greer Garson Theatre Center in Santa Fe, the first lecture of the free 2013 Santa Fe Institute public lecture series.

Palen is the director of Project EPIC (Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis) and the Connectivity Lab, which tracks technology and communications in disasters.

Palen and colleagues have analyzed the use of online communications in more than a dozen disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings and the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill.

Palen co-wrote, with her colleague Kate Starbird at the Alliance for Technology, Learning & Society, a paper on how people in Cairo used retweets through the popular Twitter program to spread information and build support during the 2011 Egyptian uprising.

The public began using social media a few years ago, more quickly than government agencies and most media outlets, to spread information during disasters. Citizens posted videos and used Twitter to communicate on-the-ground crisis events from fires to revolutions as they unfolded. In the last couple of years, governments and emergency managers have caught on to the advantages -- and drawbacks -- of using social media to get information out quickly.

Los Alamos National Laboratory jumped heavily into using social media during the 2011 Las Conchas Fire, as did national forest managers in New Mexico. In 2011, the magazine Emergency Management said incident commanders at wildfires, floods and other natural disaster events needed to pay attention to what was happening on the social media front.

Palen holds a doctorate in information and computer science from the University of California, Irvine.

For more stories covering the world of technology, please see HispanicBusiness' Tech Channel

Source: (c) 2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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