Social media monitoring system will help emergency services respond to disasters

Posted on: 26 April 2017

Researchers from Trinity College Dublin have led the development of a prototype social media monitoring system that aids police, fire and ambulance services and disaster response agencies when they are forced to respond speedily to disasters. It can utilise content from the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr.

The Slándáil Emergency Management System integrates social media input (text, image and video) into disaster management control room software. The integrated system incorporates advances in text and image analytics and machine learning; it is thus able to recognise social media-specific terminology and use imagery to inform the all-important response decisions. Disasters often cross borders, and so the system has been deployed with research from linguists and translators, and works in three languages – English, German and Italian.

The Slándáil Emergency Management System was developed by a collaborative group led by researchers from the School of Computer Science and Statistics in Trinity. It is the fruit of the three-year ‘Project Slándáil’ (security system for language and image analysis), which was sponsored by the European Union's Framework Programme 7 under its Security Research strand. It can quickly and effectively collate information about the location, severity and evolution of a disaster/emergency situation from the social media activity of people who are either involved or witnessing developments.

Professor of Computer Science at Trinity, Khurshid Ahmad, was the project coordinator. He said: “Warnings about major disasters – both natural and man-made — and the subsequent efforts to recover from them involve the use of textual, visual and audio information. The Internet, embraced by the public on a global scale, enables rapid dissemination of all three information types via social media. However, such rapid 'viral spread' also has its disadvantages and it is equally important to protect privacy as well as security.”

“The excellent work carried out by national disaster and emergency management experts and operatives relies on teams of people examining and synthesising information from vast numbers of documents on very short, sometimes evolving, time scales. Yet monitoring the sheer volume of information propagated via social media exceeds the limits of any possible unaided human professional.”

“With that in mind, we are delighted with the success of Project Slándáil. We have produced a prototype solution that allows these teams to drown out the unhelpful noise and instead systematically capture useful information spread via social media to assist disaster management as efficiently as possible. Whether they are responding to a flash flood or a dangerous man-made disturbance, the rapid provision of critical information from ‘eyes on the ground’ should help save lives.”

The team also developed a world-first model licence agreement for using it to pull data from social media to aid disaster response. This is important because there were many hurdles to clear given the complexity of data protection laws, their variation between countries, and the ethical sensitivity of accessing and sharing disaster-related content. The Slándáil Emergency Management System essentially balances the needs of emergency managers and first responders with the rights of citizens to privacy and data protection.

The system has been successfully specified, tested and evaluated by: An Garda Síochána, Ireland; Police Service of Northern Ireland, UK; army reserves Bundesministerium der Verteidigung, Saxony, Germany; civil protection authorities Protezione Civile de Veneto, Italy; media communications experts Stillwater Communications, Ireland. Further evaluation was provided by the Business Continuity Institute and the Emergency Planning Society, with both international organisations tasked with monitoring disasters in different contexts.

The team at Trinity is now forming a spin-out company that offers event management through social media analysis. Emergency management teams in northern Italy are currently using a prototype version of the social media monitor, and the current objective is to carry out live tests with Irish emergency management teams by the end of 2017.

Media Contact:

Thomas Deane, Media Relations Officer | | +353 1 896 4685