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Researchers look into the use of social networks in emergency communications

Disaster communications through social networks is fast but it does have certain limits.

That is the main conclusion of an international study in which Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) scientists participated, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The study analysed the potential of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to coordinate people. In recent years there have been a number of examples of how social networks have served to mobilize volunteers during natural disasters, political campaigns, health emergencies, etc. But can we really depend on the use of social networks to carry out these tasks? And if it is possible, what is the risk that this strategy will fail?

Using recent results of the spacio-temporal structure of social networks and experimental data the researchers have demonstrated that social networks can be a very useful tool for coordinating people in critical situations, but have found that the risk of failure for this strategy is high. They have also demonstrated this with a practical problem:

How long would it take (using only social networks) to find a person in the United States?

“The response we found is two days on average, but there is also a high risk that it could take longer than a month,” revealed one of the authors, Esteban Moro, UC3M Mathematic Department professor and member of Interdisciplinary Group of Complex Systems.

Researchers from Masdar Institute of Science and Technology Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Australian research center, NICTA, and the University of California at San Diego (USA) and Edinburgh (Scotland) also participated in this study.

In order to obtain these results, the researchers used as a setting results gathered from an experiment carried out in 2009 by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in the US. The objective was to evaluate the efficiency of social networks in human mobilizations where time was a critical factor. For that reason, a contest was set up with a prize of 40,000 dollars inviting participants to find ten weather balloons randomly located across the United States, within the least amount of time possible. The winning team from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) was able to locate them in the span of nine hours.

In this study, now published by the researchers, the scientists carried out hundreds of computer simulations with geographic and demographic information and the strategy used by the team to win this challenge posed by DARPA. The conclusion reached is that weather balloons could have been exclusively located through social networks, without the help of conventional communication (radio, television, newspapers), although with certain limits.

“Our results indicate that social mobilization of this type would be successful under certain optimal conditions”, the study indicated. One of the critical factors for success then, is that the users who participate in the mobilization not only have many social links but also are effective when it comes to circulating information quickly.

Read the full paper.

•Date: 9th April 2013 • World •Type: Article • Topic: Crisis communications

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