Social Media, Mapping, and Real-Time Response

Earlier this week, Google released high resolution satellite images from the area surrounding the recent Chinese earthquake. The files can be examined online or imported into their Google Earth mapping tool. The 6.9 magnitude earthquake which hit near Qinghai, China killed hundreds, injured thousands, and destroyed many buildings. The imagery released by Google shows the location "before" and "after," and reveals much about the extent of the devastation. The company posted the information in conjunction with a Crisis Response page that included links to disaster relief agencies, a person-finder tool for people in the affected area, and links to news, YouTube and social media resources. Google provided similar images following the Haiti earthquake in January and maintains an ongoing Crisis Response page for relief efforts there.

Mapping via satellite location systems (GPS) and via Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technologies are able to give us more information, and more information more quickly, about natural disasters such as earthquakes. These technologies are having an incredible impact on our abilities to understand, respond to, and perhaps even predict natural disasters. From zero hour, when a disaster strikes, international map-making efforts are immediately underway. Agencies such as the US Geological Survey send the information they gather to relief agencies. But before relief agencies know where to go and what to expect, they need maps. NGOs like MapAction fulfill this need, helping respond with local map-making in response to tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods. Trained olunteers create maps, that track the epicenter of an earthquake, for example, and that track the surrounding population and resources in the area. Relief workers then dispatched to a site can be equipped with GIS technology to help develop and hone maps. All this in turn helps makes sure the aid reaches those in need of assistance. MapAction calls this a "shared operational picture" that can make sure the right resources get to the right places.

Rapid response to natural disasters can be assisted by GIS technologies, but information about a natural disaster can also originate and be spread via social media. Real-time responses to natural disasters like the Haiti and Qinghai earthquake were tracked via Twitter, for example. Social media was also used to share resources, including information on where to search for missing friends and relatives in the affected regions as well as information on how to donate to relief efforts.

While having more information rapidly at our disposal is only one aspect in helping address natural disasters, it is an important aspect. It is a cliche, perhaps, when people say that "time is of the essence" in responding to natural disasters. But it is the truth. The quicker that teams can respond, the better, and thanks to new and better mapping technologies, many relief agencies are able to "hit the ground running" with accurate data on where and how to help.