Hazards, Emergency Response and Online Informal Communication

Project HEROIC is a collaborative, NSF funded effort by researchers at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the University of California-Irvine to better understand the dynamics of informal online communication in response to extreme events. Through a combination of data collection and modeling of conversation dynamics, the project team aims to understand the relationship between hazard events, informal communication and emergency response.

The nearly continuous, informal exchange of information — including such mundane activities as gossip, rumor, and casual conversation — is a characteristic human behavior, found across societies and throughout recorded history. While often taken for granted, these natural patterns of information exchange become an important “soft infrastructure” for decentralized resource mobilization and response during emergencies and other extreme events. Indeed, despite being historically limited by the constraints of physical proximity, small numbers of available contacts, and the frailties of human memory, informal communication channels are often the primary means by which time-sensitive hazard information first reaches members of the public. This capacity of informal communication has been further transformed by the widespread adoption of mobile devices (such as “smart-phones”) and social media technologies (e.g., microblogging services such as Twitter), which allow individuals to reach much larger numbers of contacts over greater distances than was possible in previous eras.

Although the potential to exploit this capacity for emergency warnings, alerts, and response is increasingly recognized by practitioners, much remains to be learned about the dynamics of informal online communication in emergencies — and, in particular, about the ways in which existing streams of information are modified by the introduction of emergency information from both official and unofficial sources. Our research addresses this gap, employing a longitudinal, multi-hazard, multi-event study of online communication to model the dynamics of informal information exchange in and immediately following emergency situations.

For more information see the project website.