May 15, 2014

Carlsbad on Fire: Tracking Natural Disasters

James Neufeld by James Neufeld

Natural disasters are perhaps the most documented news events on social media. Here are some observations and tips learned from tracking the Southern California fires yesterday (May 15th).

1. People don’t update the media, they update their friends. Commonly we see news outlets trying to get their audience to send them news and tips (and they should – get the story). However, don’t mistake user motives. User reactions to upload social media is predominately to update followers, friends and family – not the news media. Keep this mind as you search.

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2. People on the ground. Find your key sources on the ground as quickly as possible. People that share/update once are likely to do it again – keeping tabs on frequent updaters will mean you need to look at less junk while being on the leading edge of the story.

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3. Don’t rely on any one search method. UGC is wildly inconsistent. Some use hashtags, others use no hashtags. Some have GEO enabled, others do not. Make sure you cast a large net around your story so you don’t miss something valuable. Include variations in your search like ‘#Fire’, ‘Fire’, ‘Smoke’, ‘Burning’ and so on.

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4. Get the full picture. Increasing amounts of UGC has GEO information available.

SAM ScreenshotSAM ScreenshotEarly in the story the number of fires wasn’t confirmed by officials, however we started to notice clusters of fire pictures in our SAM Map View. It was difficult to discern if it was the same fire from multiple vantage points (however it’s rare to see such distinct clusters – typically it’s more scattered if it’s the same subject). Soon an aerial picture from Gilbert Gaona started circulating Twitter, which clearly depicted three fires matching the clusters of social media activity.

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5. Instagram. Twitter isn’t the only place to get breaking news. In fact, there are many reasons we would argue Instagram is better. Twitter often struggles with RT’s of fake reports or speculation and rumours can circulate faster than truth at times. Instagram, as pure visual platform, doesn’t share this problem. Sharing fake content, while possible, is a lot more work (you’ll need a convincing image/video) and there’s no RT button to spread it widely. Most Instagram content has a massive advantage that few Tweets have (beyond visuals), GEO data. Visual content with a high percentage of fairly accurate GEO data is a dream source for tracking a news story. Luckily, it’s not either or, SAM enables you to search both.

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To learn more about how SAM helps newsrooms, just reach out! james[at]

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