The 2010 hurricane season, which began this month, is forecast to be a busy one. As relief workers respond to the storms, researchers at Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Lab in Cherry Hill will track the situation - not through weather maps and TV reports, but through photos and messages on social-media websites.
The lab is studying posts on tools such as Twitter and YouTube during disasters and political conflicts to answer some basic questions: Who is using them? And how?
The lab is part of a growing field of research on the intersection of disaster relief and ever-evolving social media.
The Office of Naval Research, an agency in the Department of Defense, has given the lab - in partnership with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County - a two-year grant of $1.1 million.
That's not much when it comes to defense money, but Brian Dennis, lead researcher at Lockheed, said the aim was to show the federal government that the field was worth more investment.
Often during disasters, military, aid, and government officials "get together in a big command center, and that centralized element helps them coordinate," Dennis said. But "sometimes they miss things at the very edge that could be going on. . . . Social-media systems are catching some of that."
Using demographic and behavioral data, he hopes to create computerized simulations of how social-media users react during disasters in order to test new tools.
The potential is great for developing uses for media. In political operations, Dennis said, analysis of Twitter and other tools could help the military identify those who hold sway in their communities or learn about corruption that people are afraid to discuss openly in other forums.
In relief work, social media already help track where assistance is most needed and avoid duplication, but that role could be greatly expanded and used to gauge whether aid is working.
The power of social media lies in its populist nature. Anyone with a cell phone or Internet access can publicize his or her location, needs, and opinions.
Twitter, a microblogging tool on which people post their thoughts 140 characters at a time, has been a particular focus of researchers. Nearly everything posted is public.
Twitter has been hailed for giving people the ability to brand their companies, their products, and themselves. Though the military has been wary of the personal use of social media by servicemen and servicewomen, it recognizes the power of the technology.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put out a memo in March detailing how his office could expand its presence on applications such as Twitter and YouTube.
Lockheed's mission is different. While uses for social media are constantly emerging, Dennis' team has been charged with taking a step back and conducting basic empirical studies of the tools and how they are used when communication is difficult but critical.
The project, which began in August, was just ramping up when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti in January.
"We were a little unprepared," Dennis said.
Researchers at Lockheed's locations in Cherry Hill, Arlington, Va., and Kennesaw, Ga., got to work to see how much data they could collect from Twitter and how quickly.
They found 50 key people sending tweets, or messages, about the earthquake. From there, they identified the group's "followers," or subscribers, and the followers' followers. Within two hours, they had harvested 29,000 tweets from more than 18,000 users, which they analyzed.
Haiti was a test drive, Dennis said. Hurricane season likely will give researchers the chance to collect and analyze data over several similar events. In addition to Twitter, the group will look at Flickr, a photo-sharing site, and possibly Facebook.
Early work concerning social media and disasters focused on Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. The field garnered more attention after the Haiti earthquake. A collective called CrisisCommons held seminars across the country that brought researchers and technologists together to look for ways to help in Haiti.
Today, members of the ConnectivIT lab at the University of Colorado are creating an interactive map to track the impact of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico using Twitter reports about oil washing ashore, wildlife affected, and volunteers looking to help. They also are focused on finding ways to analyze the massive amount of information available through sites such as Twitter.
When disasters strike, technologists often look for ways to help, said Kate Starbird, a third-year doctoral student who works with the ConnectivIT lab.
"Our job as researchers is to try not to get caught up too much in the 'What do we do right now?' " she said.