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Beyond Crisis Mapping: Social Network Analysis of Twitter Buzz During Australian Floods

BY Julia Wetherell | Tuesday, January 22 2013

The flooded streets of Brisbane during an 1893 flood (Australian National Maritime Museum/Flickr).

Australia has a long history of dangerous summer flood conditions, with waterways that break dams and rise over riverbanks to flood the streets. When a record-breaking flooding event struck the eastern states of the country in December and January of 2010-2011, Twitter users took to their online network to share information and communicate with fellow victims of the natural disasters. A year later, social network analysis (SNA) reports of Twitter chatter during the floods offer a picture of social media behavior in disaster response.

Patrick Meier, co-founder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers, former Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi and current Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute, has been following developments in SNA for humanitarian crisis response at iRevolution, and wrote last week about a study by researchers at Melbourne’s RMIT University that analyzed the flow of crisis information on Twitter during the Australian floods.

In an interview with techPresident, Meier said that the most critical takeaway was the identification of individual feeds — many operated by private citizens — that served as major information aggregators. Meier says this is a boon for people trying to grapple with the geyser-like flow of Twitter data: “We don’t need to monitor everyone at the same time. We can just find an handful of community leaders and highly connected individuals.” Following the trail of hashtags and retweets, SNA makes sense of the ways that people are networking to respond to crisis in real time, allowing us to “understand what is happening at the level of self-organization.” It’s a more nuanced approach than straight crisis mapping. Meier compares using SNA to looking at infrared light; relying on mapping alone to develop an understanding of humanitarian crisis is like “ignoring a certain part of the electromagnetic spectrum.”

By employing SNA, the RMIT researchers were also able to confirm the efficacy of certain organizations in flood response — such as the Queensland Police, who actively disseminated information on their Twitter feed — as well as identify gaps in social media response in other areas affected by the floods. As the field of social network analysis evolves, the insight it provides into the nature crisis response — at the organizational and human level — may improve preventive and infrastructural measures.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

This article has been edited to include Patrick Meier's current post as Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute.

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