Smoke signals, via Twitter

Mitchell Byars | Boulder Weekly


As the flames raced through northwest Boulder on Labor Day morning, concerned residents naturally jumped on their computers in search of news on the fire. But those who scoured through news sites found very little in the way of live coverage and updates. Surprisingly, it was the people who went to check their Twitter accounts that found what they were looking for.


Especially in the early hours of the fire, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were much more effective than traditional media sources at providing timely information for those being affected by the fire, with civilians taking to their laptops to relay what they knew across the Web.

“Members of the public play a critical role in emergencies by providing current information,” says Leysia Palen, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder and director of the ConnectivIT Lab. Palen is also leading a study called EPIC: Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis. The study, which is backed by a $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant, looks at how social media is used in emergency situations. Palen says the study is finding that social media is especially useful in the early stages of an emergency when people need news specific to where they are.

“It’s hard for a paper like The Denver Post to be specific for that many people,” Palen says. “That’s where members of the public can be helpful in local situations.”

One of those members of the public Tweeting information about the fire was Sandra Fish, an instructor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at CU. Fish saw the smoke and smelled the fire, but when she went online she was unable to find any news of the fire.

“I got online to the Daily Camera and The Denver Post and I didn’t see anything,” she says.

She finally was able to find an online link to the county scanner and began listening for updates. At 11:30 a.m., around an hour and a half after the fire started in Emerson Gulch, she sent her first Tweet and continued to Tweet what she heard throughout the day. Fish gained 500 followers on her Twitter page that day, and at one point she used up the amount of Tweets she was allowed and was forced to stop for a short while.

“People were finding it useful, and as long as people were finding it useful I was going to keep doing it,” Fish says. “If I saw the mainstream media jump in I would have stopped. Luckily other people stepped in when I had to go to school on Tuesday.

“I had conversations with a lot of people, and there was a real hunger for information about this.”

But not all Twitter users are Tweeting the right information, and that is one thing about which Palen said people exclusively relying on social media during emergencies need to be cautious.

“They need to find the people who are going to give good information,” Palen says. “People need to be smart about it, and I think they normally are.”

Fish says that because Twitter users form a sort of online community, they help to police each other and prevent false information from getting out.

“There was someone on Wednesday who was Tweeting inaccurate information and he got shouted off the planet,” Fish says. “The thing about Twitter is you can correct your errors quickly. I posted a wrong link, and people responded by pointing out the errors and I could fix the link.”

Now the question becomes how traditional media sources are going to respond to the growing use of Twitter in emergencies. Fish hopes that the mainstream media will start devoting more of their resources to using social media, and tries to make sure all of her students are familiar with it.

“Journalists need to be more nimble,” she says. “It’s hard to convince people in the mainstream media that it’s worth their time and it’s not just extra work. This was a chance to step up and do this, but nobody did.”