Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis (Project EPIC)

NEWS: Our study of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 quickly transformed our current research team into accidental disinformation researchers. Though we set out to examine a host of collective behavior in response to the biohazard, the effect of political influencers in the Twitter realm alone was so remarkable that it effectively “broke” our well-developed and comprehensive data collection procedures. We report on the results of that unexpected foray in our new blog, A Post Mortem of @realDonaldTrump which discusses the information science behind this account, data journalism style (Leysia Palen and Jennings Anderson, leads).

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ABOUT Project EPIC. Project EPIC was established in 2009 at the University of Colorado Boulder by Leysia Palen and Kenneth M Anderson with funding from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct research in crisis informatics. Its predecessor lab Connectivity, had forged the way in area at Boulder since an initial 2006 NSF CAREER grant award to Palen on Data in Disaster.

The University of Colorado Boulder effort focuses primarily on what role social media, data and other tech environments play in natural hazards. We have long been a multi-disciplinary effort, with collaborators coming from across computing, information, the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities to produce multiple authored publications and resources. We have publiished papers on a range of crisis informatics topics across these same disciplines (see these publication pages [1, 2] for a majority of those offerings; a single collation of those papers is to come).

In 2020, at the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic, we spearheaded an international crisis informatics community effort to quickly collate the many publications the growing subdiscipline has produced and to present it in a form that would be accessible to as many as possible researchers and practitioners who were seeking academic insight about how tech and crisis. This crisis informatics annotated bibliography is freely available to all.  

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What is crisis informatics?. Drawing from the Crisis Informatics Resource,

“Concerned with the ways in which information systems are entangled with socio-behavioral phenomena connected to disasters, [the field of] crisis informatics offers a rich set of research methods and empirical opportunities for examining the consequences of the role of technology in mediating our relations with the world.” (Soden and Palen 2018) 

Crisis informatics examines how networked digital technology—particularly the social media-featured technologies of the 2000s and beyond—interacts with disaster management, with consideration of this interaction from a social science sensibility, which accounts for such disciplines as sociology, geography, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, and more. The expansion to include human systems in the consideration of technology use is what makes crisis informatics a field of research that includes computer science—especially in terms of some its data science techniques—but whose questions do not alone stem from it. 

The distinction here with respect to the timeline—post 2000s—emphasizes the networked quality of software systems that enables interaction across sites and across people. It accounts for the rise of social media and other peer-to-peer platforms that enabled the informal response—that is, members of the public—to become involved in disaster response in various ways that were beneficial or not. Some such socio-behavioral phenomena predate the 2000s in localized group activity that were harbingers for what was to come. These flourished and then became more widespread with the advent of blogs, mobile phones and then social media. However, though social media and social media features dominate much of the crisis informatics research, they do not alone define it.

As such, it is hard to draw the line at where crisis informatics work begins and ends. Many people do work in digital technology that is aimed at disaster work. This includes for example, software platforms that support Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs) and supply chain management, and machine-enhanced ways of doing search and rescue, all of which predate the 2000s. This important work deserves its own bibliographies. Further, some work, including from data and computer science, uses social media data similar to crisis informatics researchers, but may not stem from a practical or social science orientation to the particular disaster domain under study.

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Crisis informatics is an evolving field, with sometimes blurry boundaries that we welcome. As an academic field, it examines the role of Information and communication technology (ICT) in crises, and as such, it strives to apply its work to practices in disaster management. However, significant innovation in this field often comes from practitioners rather than researchers, whose innovations stem from deep expertise about the needs of disaster warning, mitigation and response. In some of these cases, the practice is then brought to additional research investigation. Synergy between research and practice is an ongoing goal, and though is sometimes difficult to achieve, remains a pursuit nonetheless. 

Some definitions about crisis informatics that have been employed including the following. Crisis informatics...

  • “addresses sociotechnical concerns in large-scale emergency response. Additionally it expands consideration to include not only official responders (who tend to be the focus in policy and technology-focused matters), but also members of the public. It therefore views emergency response as a social system where information is disseminated within and between official and public channels and entities. Crisis informatics wrestles with methodological concerns as it strives to develop new theory and support informed development of ICT and policy.” (Palen, Anderson, Mark, Martin, Sicker, Palmer, Grunwald, 2009)
  • “is broadly defined as the interconnectedness of people, organizations, information and technology during crises/disasters. Crisis informatics examines the intersecting trajectories of social, technical and information perspectives during the full life cycle of a crisis: preparation, response, and recovery.” (Hagar 2014)
  • “examines the relationship between human behavior & information technology during crises” (Soden 2019)
  • “views emergency response as an expanded social system where information is disseminated within and between official and public channels and entities” (Palen, Vieweg, Liu and Hughes 2009)
  • “includes empirical study as well as socially and behaviorally conscious ICT development and deployment. Both research and development of ICT for crisis situations need to work from a united perspective of the information, disaster, and technical sciences.” (Palen, Vieweg, Sutton, Liu and Hughes, 2007)
  • “is a multidisciplinary field combining computing and social science knowledge of disasters; its central tenet is that people use personal information and communication technology to respond to disaster in creative ways to cope with uncertainty” (Palen & Anderson, 2016).