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How Social Media and Volunteered Mapping Has Changed Emergency Response

By Liam O’Brien, faculty member, Intelligence Studies at American Military University

Volunteered geographic information (VGI) was first coined by Michael Goodchild in 2007 as a term to denote geospatial information provided voluntarily by individuals. The social media platforms Facebook and Twitter were created in 2004 and 2006, respectively. In the decade since their emergence, VGI and social media have become valuable tools to provide emergency responders with vital situational awareness. Timely and accurate situational information is essential for emergency managers to make decisions that reduce injury and death and support many emergency management functions, such as building damage assessments, road network viability, or identifying victim locations.

The Power of Volunteered Geographic Information During Disasters

The 2010 Haiti earthquake provided one of the first large-scale examples of the role of VGI and social media in emergency management. Texting and social media posts emerged as a viable way to transmit information out of the devastated areas, where the information was translated by volunteers and shared on open-mapping, crowd-sourcing portals such as Ushahidi. The power of volunteer mapping was demonstrated by the rapid mapping of affected areas by volunteer crisis mappers using the OpenStreetMap (OSM) platform (view the OSM video).

Great advances in VGI, especially in the expansion of crisis mapping platforms and collectives, have taken place since the Haiti earthquake, and the use of online social media for transmitting situational awareness information is now one of the most important resources in disaster management.

The expansion of the crisis mapping community is especially notable, as today there are tens of thousands of volunteer mappers, scattered across the globe, providing geospatial information. Taking the 2015 Nepal Earthquake as an example, volunteers using OSM mapped over 10,000 miles of roads and 100,000 structures. A volunteer force from the UAV Humanitarian Network collected still and video imagery using small airborne drones. Some of the other volunteer groups responding include Crisis Commons, CrisisMappers, and MapAction. One local group, Kathmandu Living Labs, created a crowd-sourced online platform that leveraged social media, texts, and phone calls to post near-real time information on where aid was needed.

The Rise of Social Media and Smartphones

On-site individuals using smartphones provide real-time information in disaster events that aids in situational awareness. The first-hand observations provide on-the-ground data that is often missed by other disaster collection techniques such as aerial photography. The data is geo-referenced, either by the smartphone’s geo-locational technology, or though voice, text and images. The data may be sent via social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and by texting. Social media is increasingly being used by those affected by disasters as a method to transmit needs.

A recent dramatic example took place during the flooding of areas of Houston from Hurricane Harvey. Hundreds of stranded residents took to Facebook and Twitter to request rescue. Houston-based emergency managers also used social media during the flooding to coordinate responses and to broadcast public safety messages.

Challenges for Emergency Managers

Emergency Managers understand the need to monitor and use social media as a primary means to collect and disseminate information, and have incorporated social media into planning and response strategies. They are also increasingly aware of the need to integrate VGI into situational awareness platforms in order to make more informed decisions.

However, challenges remain. Given the many streams of information, the amount of information being provided, and the wide range of trained and untrained individuals providing it, how do emergency managers filter and manage the data that is transmitted in an unfolding crisis, and how do they assure data accuracy, relevance, and accessibility? That is the next frontier.

mappingAbout the Author: Liam O’Brien is a faculty member in the Intelligence Studies program at American Military University and a previous member of the Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. He can be reached at

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