Real-time Web service aims to inform disaster victims via Twitter

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

Getting up-to-date information is imperative to surviving a natural or man-made disaster and social media may be a great source, but only if it’s reliable enough to bet your life on.

Disaana, a Web-based real-time information service launched Wednesday on an experimental basis by the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, may help provide quick and reliable disaster-related information while alerting users to potentially unsubstantiated rumors and fake tips.

By analyzing tweets and their geolocation data, the service creates a way for users to know what is really happening inside a disaster zone by viewing on-the-ground reactions of those affected, in real time.

Users access Disaana’s website on a desktop or mobile device, and must enter the nature or location of a disaster, or both terms. The search engine returns a map of the area affected with pins representing messages about the unfolding events posted by Twitter users at the center of the disaster.

The advantage is that users can immediately determine how best to protect their lives, Kiyonori Otake, the project’s leader and an NICT researcher, said.

For example, if a massive fire breaks out after an earthquake, people could discover the direction it is spreading through real-time tweets, and thus immediately decide what to do, Otake said.

Getting trustworthy information is another crucial issue, and Disaana offers a function to help with that. If a tweet contradicts another or is flagged by another Twitter user as potentially fake, the system displays it alongside a caution.

The service was developed using lessons from the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear meltdowns of March 2011, when countless tweets were posted by people caught up in the triple disaster. Such tweets, if correct, would be a valuable source of information in figuring out what was really happening on the ground.

“Unfortunately, they weren’t being fully taken advantage of (during the 2011 catastrophe),” Otake said, adding that the uncertainty surrounding these tweets hindered both those affected in Tohoku and the effectiveness of response efforts.

The next step for Disaana is to add an English-language service, which is planned for fiscal 2016.

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