standard Twitter and wildfires: Microblogging emergency information

Catrin Edgeley, a student on the MSc in Risk programme at Durham University, explains the pros and cons of using microblogging sites such as Twitter and Facebook to relay emergency information about wildfire hazards.

Wildfire near Genoa, Italy 2009.

Microblogging as a technique for the dissemination of emergency information to the public is a recent and promising new method of increasing awareness of local risks. Authorities and services share information about hazards to a global audience instantly, while citizens who also share posts can provide a gauge of social awareness and expansion of the hazard. With wildfire occurrence expected to rise 75% by the end of the century, microblogging offers a new avenue for building awareness and resilience around risks that this and other hazards possess, but there are currently several hurdles before it reaches its full potential.

Twitter and other microblogging sites have the option to ‘geotag’ each post with the place it was sent from, creating location-based data networks. This spatio-temporal dimension enables a more detailed look at the distribution of volunteered geographic information to indicate awareness, and has the potential for real-time tracking of fire spread and crisis mapping, as users volunteer information about their exposure.

During the 2009 Marseille fire tweets such as ‘OMG! The fire seems out of control: It’s running down the hills!’ were posted and shared, indicating visual identification of the fire at the user’s location. Unfortunately, only an estimated 1% of posts on Twitter currently include this geotag metadata, which limits the extent of its practicality. Locations can be more broadly defined through other information these ‘citizen journalists’ share, including place names in tweets, timestamps on posts, photograph attachments, and their profile location.


Reliability issues risk overriding the value of this powerful tool, although official sources are credible, those who share their posts may not be. The 2012 Valencia forest fire in Spain is a key example of this. The City Council of Carlet posted a tweet requesting volunteers to assist with firefighting efforts on the 1st July, but within several hours, the tweet had been shared and adapted by over 3000 Twitter users to include a request for chainsaws too, which had not appeared in the original message.

36 hours later, it was still being shared with the addition of an announcement that the fire was under control — information which had not been supplied by any authorities and was incorrect at the time. Interestingly, a tweet by the City Council that announced enough volunteers had been found only three hours after the initial request was barely seen or shared. A similar case was seen during the Californian Rim Fire last summer, where unofficial tweets claiming that Groveland fire station had been burnt led to local panic after being repeatedly shared, although it was actually untouched by the flames and still in use.

Twitter presents countless opportunities for ‘Chinese whispers’ where the original information does not match later outputs, causing confusion and aggravating emergency situations. Using specific hashtagged words to indicate official tweets is becoming an effective method of separating reliable information from hoaxes and rumours (Valencia fire information was shared under the hashtag #ifcortesdepallas). Conversely, personal and unofficial tweets were found to have a beneficial purpose during the Oklahoma grassfires of 2009, where users posted indirect advice like “I watered the yard and roof”, which were shared with the intention of improving local mitigation during the event.

Twitter and other microblogging sites like Facebook and Instagram hold vast potential for emergency management in terms of aggregation and spread of information. Overcoming reliability issues requires the strengthening of good practice, attaching geotags to shared personal information, and encouraging the sharing of posts only from official sources through ‘re-tweeting’, where the post cannot be adapted before it is forwarded. When information is requested by the public on Twitter and other social networks, authorities can act as the main point of correspondence by actively replying on these microblogging platforms, preventing the opportunity for incorrect information sharing.

References and Further Reading

De Longueville, B., Smith, R. S., & Luraschi, G. (2009, November). OMG, from here, I can see the flames!”: a use case of mining location based social networks to acquire spatio-temporal data on forest fires. In Proceedings of the 2009 International Workshop on Location Based Social Networks (pp. 73-80). ACM.

Middleton, S., Middleton, L., & Modafferi, S. (2014). Real-time Crisis Mapping of Natural Disasters using Social Media. IEEE Intelligent Systems (in publication).

Ortiz, M. Á. M., & Peramato, M. E. G. (2013). Social networks and emergencies: the case of forest fires and TwitterEmergencias25, 415-417.

Spinsanti, L., & Ostermann, F. O. (2011). Retrieve Volunteered Geographic Information for Forest Fire. In IIR January.

Vieweg, S., Hughes, A. L., Starbird, K., & Palen, L. (2010). Microblogging during two natural hazards events: what twitter may contribute to situational awareness. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1079-1088). ACM.

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