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Making social media data valuable for humanitarian actors 

The value of using social media across all disaster phases is well documented with applications being used to disseminate preparedness information, gain situational awareness, and request donations following a disaster. However, the user generated nature of social media means that there is a vast amount of information that cannot always be trusted, making it difficult for humanitarian actors to know how to optimise social media in their work. Researchers at Trilateral Research have been examining how humanitarian actors can use social media analysis tools to gain valuable insights from social media data to inform their work. Hayley Watson, Susan Anson, Olivia Iannelli and Katrina Petersen from Trilateral Research discuss the findings.

In an increasingly globalised world, it has become possible for anyone with an internet connection and a smartphone to capture real time images of extraordinary and unpredictable events and broadcast them on social media platforms. In fact, the advent of a plethora of social media tools has changed the landscape of humanitarian response considerably over recent years. Social media (analysis) tools are an effective means for humanitarian actors to acquire and analyse information quickly and more efficiently and comprehensively than the naked human eye. However, to do so they require enhanced analytical capabilities to enable them to interact with social media content in a meaningful manner that is in keeping with their goals. The 2015 Nepal Earthquake is a case in point, where social media and online applications were used to: "find and identify earthquake victims, to rally support, to share information and dispel rumours," according to the New York Times. This poses the question: How can humanitarian actors best gain insights from social media without running the risk of sharing false information or basing their decision-making on misinformation?

One way is to look at how social media can support activities beyond response, at times when misinformation is less of an issue. For representatives across the Red Cross Red Crescent (RCRC) network for instance, great attention is placed on the use of social media for preparedness activities. In 2017, our research with RCRC social media users revealed that understanding audience engagement is key to being a trusted actor in their communities. Social media analytics are valuable here. Environmental scanning is an activity for RCRC actors to monitor and listen to what others are saying, thereby informing RCRC national societies’ understanding of unfolding situations and crises. It makes it possible to identify potential risks and influential trustworthy actors. Also, using social media analysis tools to capture community responses to preparedness and disaster risk reduction information provides valuable insights to gain a better situational understanding of the communities being served and how they understand the risks related to them. These uses require specific functionality from social media analysis tools as outlined in the figure below: 

figure tri edited

Such uses are seen as fundamental by IFRC Geneva which is using them to actively support national societies (eg to support the use of social media, the GDPC has developed an e-learning course). The Kenya Red Cross monitors any information relating to traffic incidents and/or protests, enabling it to inform its audiences of potential areas to avoid. In this manner, social media is an important medium for improving situational awareness and can even go so far as to act as a form of risk identification and early warning. Furthermore, with this background information in hand, in the event of a crisis unfolding, it may also be possible for national societies to identify rumours and counter such rumours, thereby directly countering the spread of misinformation.

Social media can also be used to support threat detection, navigation, logistics and coordination in humanitarian disasters. This potential was explored in the EU funded iTRACK project, through a collaboration between the private sector, academia and humanitarian organisations. Within iTRACK, a humanitarian app was designed to improve the protection of humanitarian personnel and assets with the use of social media environmental scanning. The app's 'SocialSense' component analyses real-time incoming textual information, keywords and conversations on social media feeds (currently Twitter feeds) or other available open sources to automatically detect potential threats and location information that could affect a mission in close proximity. The humanitarian worker can use the iTRACK app to gain a wider understanding of the potential threats and/or emergency situations through notifications on the user’s mobile phone, thus improving the organisation's environment scanning and disaster risk preparedness.

Social media can also be used to monitor what other reputable organisations are saying, and thus to identify any important information (eg a potential risk) coming from others. To aid monitoring activities, it would be useful for future tools to enable users to save specific searches that are set-up using Boolean search criteria thereby supporting the user in filtering content, eg location filters, and/or statements, keywords, hashtags and mentions. It would also be useful to understand when a certain type of message/content becomes popular, ie multiple users discussing the need for first aid in a specific area. The ability to verify information and identify false posts and related content, eg images, videos, would also be instrumental to users.

"Our research across multiple studies and projects has demonstrated how social media analysis tools can increase the value of social media data for humanitarian actors. They provide a tool enabling humanitarian organisations to actively listen and gain insights to better understand the communities that they serve," says Hayley Watson, Practice Manager at Trilateral Research. "Used in an ethical and privacy conscious manner, we have found that social media analysis tools perform a critical role for humanitarian organisations in environmental scanning and gaining situational awareness. However, the risks of misinformation cannot be ignored." Ongoing research at Trilateral is addressing the issue of social media information verification.   

Funding information:

iTRACK is supported by funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 700510. For further information visit

PREP1 is supported by Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund programme. For further information on PREP1 visit


Chan, C., J., the role of social media in crisis preparedness, response and recovery, Vanguard, OECD, pg. 2,,%20response%20and%20recovery.pdf  (last accessed July 13, 2018);


Barry, E., (2015), Updates on Earthquake in Nepal: Live Coverage, The New York Times, (last accessed April 2, 2019)

Image: Gloria Rosazza|123rf 

Hayley Watson, Susan Anson, 09/04/2019
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