Data and social media: how researchers are creating a positive impact

This post was originally published by India Lloyd at the Global Challenges blog.

PetaJakarta, shown on the computer screen, provides real-time mapping of flooding throughout Jakarta. Photo credit: Etienne Turpin

PetaJakarta, shown on the computer screen, provides real-time mapping of flooding throughout Jakarta. Photo credit: Etienne Turpin

We are inundated with information every day. The ubiquity of social media and the 24-hour news cycle means we are faced with more data than we know what to do with.

But can we harness this data overload in times of disaster? How can we break through the plethora of information to navigate our present and create resilience for the future? How can big data become a force for good, rather than a necessary evil of modern life?

These questions were at the heart of last week’s SMART Data Workshop at Sydney Business School.

The workshop, a partnership between the University of Wollongong’s SMART Infrastructure Facility and the Global Challenges Program, examined the turn toward big data in contemporary urban research and suggested how researchers can productively manage this information to create positive, democratic practices in the contemporary city.

Dr Etienne Turpin, one of the co-investigators of PetaJakarta, a project that uses Twitter to track and analyse flooding in the megacity of Jakarta, opened the workshop by capturing the dominance of data and social media in our daily lives.

“Crowdsourcing, social media, and big data are coming together in every aspect of society, in research, government, industry, and business,” Dr Turpin said.

“Ninety per cent of the data stored in the world today was produced in the last two years.”

Dr Cecile Paris of CSIRO was the first speaker of the day and captured the audience’s attention with her insight into the convergence between social media and history.

“Social media is not just Facebook and Twitter. It is everything we do online. We have to capture it and document it. We have to look at the entire conversation,” Dr Paris said.

Dr Paris believes social media is integral to documents the events taking place in our lives, both on a personal level and in the world around us. It is the modern method of communication, a prism through which we view the 21st century. CSIRO has developed a social media-monitoring tool, Vizie, to monitor social media trends and identify hot topics that are being discussed across multiple platforms.

“Social media takes the place of the letters and diaries of 50 years ago,” Dr Paris said.

“Imagine if you were a biographer writing about Australia’s first female prime minister? You would want to know what people thought. You could use Hansard, press releases, media coverage, as well as the information on social media.

“On the first day of the Ashes, there were 70,000 social media posts on the Ashes. It’s interesting to know what the country cares about – sport.”

The SMART Data Workshop  was an initiative of the SMART Infrastructure Facility and the Global Challenges Program.

The SMART Data Workshop was an initiative of the SMART Infrastructure Facility and the Global Challenges Program.

Danny Keens, Director of Media at Twitter, was next to address the workshop with his presentation on Twitter Alerts, a new initiative from the social media platform designed to provide breaking news to the public. Mr Keens offered an insider’s look at the power of Twitter to inform the public in times of crisis and also act as a “soundtrack to our life and events”.

“Twitter is a global town square,” Mr Keens said. “It took us three years, two months and one day to go from the first tweet to the one billionth tweet. Now, one billion tweets are sent every two days. It is live, public, and conversational.”

The tsunami of data available on the social media network has its drawbacks, as a tweet can be lost almost as soon as it appears.

Twitter Alerts aim to cut through the plethora of information to provide breaking news and inform the public in times of crisis. Twitter Alerts use push notifications (which appear as a text message on your phone) and pin the tweet to the top of your feed, regardless of when it was issued. Twitter Alerts, which are primarily used by emergency services and organisations responsible for public safety, can be identified by the use of a bright orange bell on the tweet.

Mr Keens said Twitter had played a significant role in many breaking news events, such as the Arab Spring uprisings that began in December 2010 and the Boston Marathon Bombings of 2013. Because of this, according to Mr Keens, Twitter was being a new type of public utility.

“We see Twitter as a new utility, and one that can only move forward through strong collaborations with engineering partners like SMART and the University of Wollongong,” he said, referring to the recent Twitter #DataGrant that was awarded to Dr Turpin and Dr Holderness.

Robbie McKay, from Ushahidi, a non-profit tech company that specialises in developing free and open source software for information collection and interactive mapping, addressed the workshop next. He spoke about the history of Ushahidi, which was initially used to map incidents of violence in Kenya on 2008, and the company’s aim to democratize information and encourage users to share their stories on the platform.

Dr Tomas Holderness and Dr Etienne Turpin, co-investigators on the PetaJakarta project, were the last speakers of the day. The pair, both based at the University of Wollongong’s SMART Infrastructure Facility, provided an interesting look at the history of the Indonesian capital whose metropolitan area has a population of more than 28 million and which is regularly plagued by seasonal flooding.

Jakarta residents wade through flood waters. Photo credit: Etienne Turpin

Jakarta residents wade through flood waters. Photo credit: Etienne Turpin

Dr Turpin said the 2013 flood, one of the most expensive in Jakarta’s history, was the catalyst for the Indonesian government’s decision to address the problem of flooding with a new approach.

“Preventing flooding is the number one national priority in Indonesia. But flooding is not just a problem in Jakarta, it is also a problem in Manila, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Dhaka, each of which have their own specific set of problems. We needed to develop a tool that was specific to Jakarta, but also abstract enough to apply to all these different cities.”

Dr Holderness said PetaJakarta, which uses Twitter data to analyse and track flooding in Jakarta, aims to help communities, and the city as a whole, develop resilience to flooding and extreme weather events.

“We asked ourselves, how can big data help? Can we use social media data to develop metrics around flooding, to provide a real-time overview of the situation?

“People in communities have a lot of knowledge around the flooding. They are incredibly used to flooding, but how do you use social media to tap into that knowledge?”

PetaJakarta was recently awarded a Twitter #DataGrant, making SMART and the University of Wollongong one of only six institutions in the world (of over 1300 applicants) to have won access to Twitter’s historical cache of data to aid in their research.

Dr Holderness said PetaJakarta brought together both big and small data, and was the first project of its kind to provide real-time updates and mapping on flooding in Jakarta through what he calls a GeoSocial Intelligence Framework.

The SMART Data Workshop showcased captivating speakers from government, industry, and the NGO sector, all of whom demonstrated the importance of data for contemporary urban research and stressed the profound influence of social media on our daily lives and our methods of communication. The workshop highlighted the myriad ways in which data provides the backdrop to modern life and how we can use it to make a positive impact on our world.

Dr Turpin and Dr Holderness go on to present PetaJakarta during a similar workshop, “Open Source Cities,” which they organised as part of the ‘Open Platform’ programme of the Asia Art Archive for Hong Kong’s Art Basel, on Saturday, May 17, before heading back to Jakarta as the coordinators of an international research studio—which brings together students from Canada, the United States, and Europe—as the kickoff of their Joint Pilot Study with the Jakarta Emergency Management Agency and the United Nations Pulse Lab.

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