TEDxUCLA 2011: Minding, Mining, Mending, Mapping

Can Twitter save lives?


About Yoh 

Yoh Kawano came to Los Angeles and UCLA in 1995 after living across the globe, in 5 different countries.  At UCLA he works at the GIS and Visualization Sandbox as a member of the Research Technology Group for the Institute for Digital Research and Education (IDRE), serving as the Campus GIS Coordinator while holding lecturer positions in Urban Planning, Public Policy, Digital Humanities and the Urban Humanities.


I’ve lived in many countries growing up. I grew up in Peru and Colombia and Thailand and Japan. I’m half-Japanese, half-Filipino. So I’m often confused, as you know, who am I? Where am I from, where are my roots, where’s my home?

But when the earthquake happened in Japan, as you all know, three months ago, there really was no more confusion. I knew that these were my people and that this was my home.

As you can see from these images of the earthquake, followed by the tsunami, you see the satellite image of before and after stage, you can see the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake. And even though I’ve been involved in different disaster relief efforts, this one was different. It was personal and it was emotional in ways that others were not.

You can see some of these locations on the day of the earthquake and you can tell that three months afterwards, we’re now in a phase of recovery, as you can see what these places look like now.

I’m here to talk about the role that social media played during and after the disaster and the role that it might play in future crises. As you can tell from this single tweet, this is from a woman who is seeking help. And she tweets, “My uncle’s house is underwater because of the tsunami. He is stuck on the second floor. Please save him.” This tweet came out literally hours after the earthquake on March 11, and she leaves an address which allows us to be able to locate this house, and sure enough, we know that this house was in a severe disaster zone caused by the tsunami.

But this also allows us to follow her. Social media allows us to follow users and then to find out that just two days later on March 13, she tweets again and says, “My uncle was rescued. Thank you, everybody. I pray that others will be saved as well.”

This is the power of the social web. And this enabled many of us who were looking upon in despair and helplessness from so far away to be able to cope and experience the moments, even though we were physically not able to be there.

Now, Twitter is and was widely used in Japan even before the earthquake. But for the most part, it was used for exchanging topics about gossip, entertainment, and hey, this is Japan, people talk about anime.

But on the day of the earthquake, something changed. I mean, Twitter morphed into something different. It in essence became like the spirit of the Japanese people coping with this incredible situation that was upon them. And, you know, 70 percent of the topics changed to topics about earthquake. Another 8 percent was about transportation, so which trains are working and which ones are not. And in a sense, it became a way for people to communicate needs, to volunteer, and to storytell.

And this was made even more possible because on the day of the earthquake, cell phone networks actually went down in many places of the country. But interestingly, the internet and wi-fi did not in some of these places. So where we were not able to communicate with traditional, you know, phone communications, people were able to tweet. And that is exactly what happened. In a sense, Twitter became the virtual bulletin board in this time of crisis.

At the same time, there was an instance of an open-source platform called Ushahidi that went up. Ushahidi is the crisis management tool that is used globally. Pretty much any crisis that happens today, there’s going to be an instance of Ushahidi up and running. It was used in Haiti, it was used in Egypt, it was used in Libya. And just four hours after the earthquake, there was an instance of Ushahidi up and running and made public for Japan. It was called shinsei.info. And the story behind Ushahidi is that it’s entirely volunteer-driven. There are literally hundreds of volunteers behind the scenes that manage and curate the data that gets into Ushahidi. And in this case, in shinsei.info, all in all there were about 10,000 reports generated. Out of the 10,000 reports that were generated, 80% of these came from Twitter. Every single one of these reports were manually, individually, one by one, entered, curated, validated, edited, and mapped by one of these volunteers.

Now, this got me thinking like, isn’t there a better way to perhaps map this information? Doesn’t Twitter have some settings that allow you to transmit where you’re tweeting from?

But let’s look at the numbers. 33 million tweets. So on the day of the earthquake, 33 million tweets from Japan. This is about double the average number of tweets. And on the ensuing 30 days that followed, there were more than 700 million tweets. That’s a lot of data to have to sort through and to find the one, the kind of, the needle in the haystack, that one report that could potentially save lives out of millions of potential reports.

There was a group here at UCLA that we decided to archive some of these tweets. All in all, we archived 655,000 tweets. We archived based on tweets that were coming from Japan and based on particular earthquake hashtags that we identified. And out of 655,000 tweets that we archived, only 2,905 of those had actual real GPS coordinates. That’s an astounding 0.4% from all the tweets that we archived that had real GPS coordinates. That means that they came from mobile devices with location settings turned on.

So this really got me thinking. Shouldn’t we as a public kind of be made aware to geo-enable our devices during times of crisis? There are obvious privacy concerns about doing this in other times, but during times of crisis shouldn’t we, shouldn’t we be educated in a way that we can leverage these technologies, these available existing technologies, to basically make crisis management more efficient?

Now, what I’m here to do today is I’m going to do a live demo of a crisis map that I’ve put together that is actually a very simple concept. The idea of putting together location, location based on your mobile devices, and combining it with social media hashtags, this very kind of simple concept to build, you know, not only to build a platform like Ushahidi, but to build kind of a do-it-yourself crisis management tool, a tool that can be used at any level, at a university level, at a community level. That’s what I’d like to demonstrate today.

What I have here is a map centered in Los Angeles, and I’m going to turn Twitter on, on this map. And what you will see is we’re hitting Twitter every five seconds and this is all the chatter that’s going on in Los Angeles right now on a 50-kilometer radius from where we currently are at UCLA. And you can see there’s a lot of activity going on. These are people who have turned on their locational settings and we’re able to locate them. So that’s… okay, what’s going on right now?

We can also move this little buffer here and say, “Hey, what are people talking about down in, you know, in Anaheim?” or “Hey, what are people talking about in San Diego?” Or maybe we can go cross-country and say “Hey, what’s the mood of what people are talking about somewhere else, like in New York?” I mean, we can instantly go there and find out what they’re talking about.

That’s the danger of live demonstrations. I’m terrified by this.

But let’s go back to UCLA. We can further filter this information down by narrowing the scope. And this is really the power. What if there’s a crisis going on right here at UCLA so that we can, rather than looking at a wide area, we can really zoom in and say, “Hey, what are people talking about right here at UCLA?”

But then let’s further narrow this down. And let’s say we were educated and we were told that in times of crisis, use this specific hashtag. What if we needed to ask TED again for some help? And there we go. We know that @deeptwit needs some “help me TED” help a minute ago and Matt’s for planning. Yes. Thank you. And others who were tweeting during my talk, hey, they need, they need some help like I did.

What makes this platform also quite powerful is the fact that we can go anywhere in the world. So for example, if there was another crisis happening in Japan and I needed to locate my brother over there, I can try to see if anybody with that same hashtag was, was needing of attention. So there I see that somebody was tweeting with that hashtag.

So the ability for us to locate instantly and in real time with using existing technologies — social media, mobile devices, technologies that we use every day — and to educate ourselves, to be aware, to geo-enable during times of crisis, and to lobby relief agencies to advocate the use of social media? This is the current and the present and the future of crisis management. And this will lead to saving more lives. Thank you.