Georgia Tech students developing program to target emergency victims using social media

ATLANTA — Social media is part of everyday life. Now, researchers at Georgia Tech are using Twitter to help first responders know where help is needed the most.

“There are so many tweets that, how are you going to parse it out for them? So our technology is mostly, 'These are the people that need help. These are their tweets. Look at these first,'” said first-year doctoral student Rachel Samuels.

“During a major crisis, there are 18 million things going wrong at once and you have people spread out over a really large geographic area. You don’t know who needs help when and how much they need help,” said Samuels.

Led by Professor John E. Taylor, Samuels and her colleagues developed a program that lumps together tweets from the same area that share the same sentiment.


Any given city is broken up into 10-kilometer hexagons, which are large enough to watch Twitter trends, but small enough for a successful search and rescue. When help it needed, the hexagon turns red.

“Spikes or decreases (in tweets) are indicative of areas where there was a lot of infrastructure damage. I was also able to find, through my research, that areas that saw a sudden lack of tweets were also indicative of a local emergency,” Samuels told Severe Weather Team 2's Katie Walls.

Harvey is the first big example of how the new technology can help. As the city flooded with many feet of water, 911 centers were inundated with calls.

“People were panicking because they couldn’t get anybody on the line. So, while they were calling, they were also putting their information on social media,” Samuels said.

Citizens didn’t hesitate, deploying their personal boats to rescue those in need. The new technology will also help those citizen responders know where help is needed.

And Atlanta is next up. Samuels said her former colleague, Yan Wang, tested the system for the Interstate 85 collapse and it worked.

Samuels hopes to have the software operational by the end of this year and to eventually include Instagram.