As a series of catastrophic storms and twisters touched down in at least 10 states the end of last month, those in the midst of the destructive weather tapped into social media sites to report the status of their neighborhoods and to try to connect with lost loved ones.
For some people, it only took a single tweet or Facebook post to map their exact locations for search parties and anxious family members.
Geographic Information Systems technology -- a system designed to capture, store, analyze and map data according to its geographic location -- has become an increasingly valuable resource for restoring order and locating lost citizens following large-scale natural or man-made disasters.
Using a combination of Global Positioning System coordinates, satellite images, topographic maps and other data used to identify latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates of landmarks, GIS creates an accurate real-time map of specific areas in current conditions.
Advances -- such as Vimeo's geolocation app Foursquare, which allows users to "check in" on geocoded maps; Twitter's Twittermap, which puts users' exact locations on Google Maps with each message; and Facebook's Places page, which allows for similarly geotagged messages through Microsoft's Bing Maps -- have transformed the options for first responders and government officials faced with disaster.
"Geo-enabled tweets and other types of social media that go on maps can be used as a way of analyzing events as they happen," said Gabriel Schmidbauer, adjunct professor of geology and geographic information systems at Aurora, Colo.-based American Sentinel University.
He noted the practice served the Japanese government well following last year's devastating earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 15,000 and left more than 4,000 missing.
Citizens who registered their status with Google People Finder were tracked through Google Maps, while Japan's East Honshu Island Military Grid Reference System used GIS to provide real-time map scales showing what could be expected in each jurisdiction.
In addition, ArcGIS -- a GIS system created by Redlands, Calif.-based company Esri -- used GPS, Web-based map portals, satellite images and social media information to create real-time maps that helped find the missing and coordinate relief efforts during the disaster.
Lee Mitchell, owner of Big River, Calif.-based GIS technology firm G.A.I.A. Professionals, said maps based upon social media information were more useful to him during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill along the Gulf Coast in 2010 than maps that only showed an area's condition.
"While the [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] map helped me monitor the spill and official response, the social maps were by far the most helpful because that is where I could find people with experiences like mine that weren't nearly being addressed through any official means," he said in a press release.
Social media maps using GIS have been used to track the course of several disasters over the years, but University of Pittsburgh Center for Disaster Management director Louise Comfort said the technology is far from reaching wide-scale adoption in the public sector. But even without links to social media, GIS technologies can help government agencies organize relief efforts in the event of an emergency.
Ms. Comfort co-authored a paper with Pitt professors Daniel Mosse and Taieb Znati that describes a system designed to use GIS to assess the threat of flooding and create a decision support system for local authorities based on the assessments.
The Allegheny County Emergency Management Agency and 28 flood-prone Mon Valley communities are working with the university to test a prototype of the system.
Ms. Comfort cited a lack of knowledge among citizens and public officials as one factor that could delay widespread adoption of GIS-based social media services, but she also noted that many people are simply uncomfortable with the idea of sharing their location with every social media exchange and are hesitant to sign up for the services.
Twittermaps has more than 250,000 registered members while an anonymous source inside Facebook was widely quoted in 2010 as saying about 30 million users, or 6 percent of the company's total users, checked in using Places.
Mr. Schmidbauer agreed that privacy concerns could hold back broader adoption of social media GIS maps, particularly once a government starts actively tracking citizens' locations. Even without government intervention, he said many citizens are resistant to the idea of sharing their locale with the world.
"As data gets a life of its own, the public [isn't] aware of how far it's going," he said.
Recognizing the ways social media can encourage self-sufficient disaster preparation, in November the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response launched the Facebook Lifeline Application Challenge to encourage designers to create a social media app dedicated to communicating during times of chaos.
The winning app, created by Brown University graduates Evan Donahue and Erik Stayton, allows users to designate three "lifelines" to serve as emergency contacts, to provide food and water if needed, and notify others of the users' well-being. The app, called "Lifeline," will be launched in the next few months in anticipation of hurricane season.
The app does not include GIS technologies, but Nicole Lurie, HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said social media is the easiest and most effective way to keep contact with loved ones during disastrous events.
"Having people you can depend on for help is especially important during a disaster, so we want to encourage everyone to identify those people in advance," Ms. Lurie said. "Since so many people use Facebook to connect with one another, it seemed like a natural way to help people identify their lifelines."
Whether it's tracking a lost person to his exact location within inches or narrowing down entire communities that need attention, Ms. Comfort said technologies that help government leaders reach the best possible conclusions are poised to take an even greater role in disaster relief in the coming years.
"Giving emergency responders and government agencies timely, valid information as events are unfolding helps them to make better decisions," she said.
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.