Early tweets helped engineers assess flood damage

BOULDER – Tweets sent during last year’s devastating Colorado floods gave engineers valuable data on infrastructure damage, according to a report from the University of Colorado Boulder. The study is one of the first to look at how social media can be used to support reconnaissance by non-emergency professionals like engineers after a disaster. “Because the flooding was widespread, it impacted many canyons and closed off access to communities for a long duration, making it difficult to get a reconnaissance team on the ground,” one of the paper’s authors, Shideh Dashti, an assistant professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering at CU-Boulder, said in a press release. “The continued storms also prevented airborne reconnaissance. As a result, social media and other remote sources of information were used to obtain reconnaissance information. “People were tweeting amazing pictures and videos of damage to bridges and other infrastructure systems. After the fact, we compared those tweets to the damage reported by engineering reconnaissance teams and they were well-correlated.” It’s important for engineers to collect data after disasters about how well infrastructure withstood the events to help them design more resilient infrastructure in the future. But engineering reconnaissance teams, the CU release stated, are often hampered by a narrow window of time to collect such observations. They can’t get on the ground until conditions are safe, but often cleanup efforts that begin soon thereafter begin to erase evidence of infrastructure performance. By analyzing the information contained in tweets, teams can determine where damage has occurred and decide where to focus their limited reconnaissance time. Dashti collaborated on the study with associate professors Leysia Palen and Kenneth Anderson and doctoral student Jennings Anderson of CU’s computer science department, as well as environmental design doctoral student Mehdi Heris and Scott Anderson of the Federal Highway Administration. The team used Twitter data collected by Project EPIC, a program launched by Palen and Kenneth Anderson in 2009 to study social media during disasters.


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