New IST course examines crisis informatics

August 03, 2011

University Park, Pa. — In recent years, technology has changed the way that the world responds to crisis. Social media and mobile technologies have played a role in saving lives in disaster situations such as earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, a tsunami in Japan and violent protests in the Middle East.

This fall, Andrea Tapia, an associate professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State, will be teaching a course that will explore the interconnectedness of information, people and technology in a crisis.

Security Risk and Analysis 397A: Crisis Informatics,” will be held 6-9 p.m. each Monday.  The course will examine how information is managed, organized, coordinated and disseminated during a crisis; analyze information needs and seeking behaviors during a crisis; and explore how information and communication technologies can support communities in a crisis. Students will reflect on lessons learned from past crises and develop strategies to manage future crises.

Lisa Lenze, director of Learning Initiatives at the College of IST, said that the use of social technologies as crisis management tools is an area that the college is familiar with. IST faculty collaborate with agencies such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, work on projects such as the “Improved Information-Communication-Technologies Coordination in Disaster Relief” grant (funded by the National Science Foundation) and aggregate social media data for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are helping with relief efforts in Haiti.

“Tapia’s newly proposed course is well-grounded in the work that she and her colleagues have been engaged in,” Lenze said. “This is a great example of how research and teaching can feed off each other and provide the best possible education for our students.”

Penn State is at the forefront in the crisis informatics area, Tapia said. Currently, Dominican University is the only other university that is offering a similar course.
The course at IST will be taught from a social science and design perspective, so programming ability is not a requirement for students. Each week, three major topics will be discussed. Each class member will be expected to contribute to contribute to a class blog. For the final project, students will propose ideas for making social media applications more useful in emergency situations.

Tapia, who has a doctorate in sociology from the University of New Mexico, studies uses of information and communications technology during emergency and disaster response. She has worked with, and has been funded by, the United Nations, the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation.

Among Tapia’s research efforts is the Coordination of Humanitarian Organizations in Relief Using Technology (COHORT) project, an academic research program that seeks to understand the issues that humanitarian organizations face in their coordination efforts, particularly in the domain of information and communication technologies. Another project Tapia works with is Enhanced Messaging for the Emergency Response Sector (EMERSE), which categorizes tweets and texts from disaster sites into data NGOs can use to aid victims.

The crisis informatics course fits into an area of the IST curriculum that helps students make sense of information, Lenze said.  While other IST faculty members have strong analytical backgrounds, she added, Tapia helps students understand the social context of technology.

“Andrea’s view is, ‘How do people come together in groups to help other people?’” Lenze said.

While social media has been playing an increasingly significant role in disaster response, Tapia said, it has limitations. “A lot of people believe a lot of hype about social media,” she said.

Social media sites are not useful for taking data from citizens by organizations, Tapia said. In a widespread emergency, it would not be practical for rescue workers to respond to tweets from citizens, since the information could be misleading.

“Right now, Twitter is a food that emergency responders can’t eat,” she said.

Social media’s strength in emergency situations, Tapia said, is “citizen-to-citizen communication.” Public information departments also use websites such as Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about resources and services, “kind of as a broadcast media.”

In times of political turmoil or war, Tapia said, “Twitter starts to become a broadcast medium for the citizens.” During recent revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, citizens were not tweeting towards each other, but were rather using Twitter to spread information outside of their home countries.

“They wanted to tell the Western world what was happening without using traditional media,” she said.

While most of the research on social media as disaster response tools has focused on Twitter, Tapia said, people also heavily rely on Facebook, e-mail, and posting on websites. The advantage of Facebook and Twitter, she added, is that they are general purpose platforms. Since most people do not anticipate disasters, it is unlikely that they would ever use a social media application that was designed specifically for emergency situations.

“It has to be something that people feel comfortable using every single day,” Tapia said.

The crisis informatics field offers a variety of career opportunities, Tapia said. Jobs are available in almost every level of government as emergency managers and responders. There are also opportunities with the United Nations, the military, policing or health responders, or aid organizations such as the Red Cross or NGOs. For students who are more technologically oriented, there are “lots of little companies popping up looking for programmers and coders to build apps.”

“There’s a lot of potential employers and this is a really hot topic,” Tapia said.

Last Updated August 09, 2011