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Mar 28 2014

Using Little Data for Emergency Response

By A. Gregoor Passchier

Topics: Information SharingRecoveryResponseSocial Media

Little data is the information that is unique to an individual, organization, object, or a specific location.  In a response situation, it's the little data that provides the actionable information that first responders can use to save lives and property.  Examples of little data can include tweets from residents in a neighborhood experiencing a fire, 911 calls from people trapped in a building, images posted to Facebook showing flood impacts in a neighborhood, or wireless communications from inanimate objects like stream gauges that can indicate a flood is imminent.  In many ways, the growth of social media use has coincided with an explosion in the amount of little data available since social media posts provide data specific to individuals or objects and their location.  However, other sources of information, such as the "internet of things"[1] and sensor data associated with humans and objects (e.g., heart rate monitors, temperature controls, pressure gauges) has also increased the amount of little data available for consumption. 

Challenges can arise when this little data aggregates and combines with other information to become big data, or data that is produced at such a large volume, velocity, and in so many different formats (e.g., images, posts from various social media, news articles) that organizations have difficulty processing and using the information.  In a disaster situation, the amount of information produced can be overwhelming.  For example, over a two-week period during and after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, Twitter users generated over 20 million tweets in New York and New Jersey to convey critical information.[2]  To address the large influx of data that can be generated during major incident, organizations have used various tools to filter and process big data and turn it into little data that provides specific, actionable information.  The nonprofit organization Humanity Road made use of several analysis tools to filter over 1 million tweets and refine them to produce 4,000 pieces of actionable information during the response to Super Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines in 2013.  The information Humanity Road collected was received and used by several relief organizations to conduct relief efforts.[3]

Response organizations have also monitored various forms of little data to supplement traditional means of communicating emergency needs.  If power is out or cell phone service is interrupted, people who need assistance have turned to social media rather than using 911 to call for help.  This was the case during Hurricane Sandy when widespread power outages and lack of cell phone service forced residents in New York to use Twitter to send their calls for assistance.  Initially, New York City's Fire Department (FDNY) asked residents to use 911 and not send calls for help over Twitter.  But with many people unable to get through to 911, FDNY began using Twitter to collect individual calls for help.  FDNY responded to these tweets and relayed the location of individuals to dispatch to coordinate response efforts.[4]

For more information on how response organizations have used little data, especially social media information, see the Virtual Social Media Working Group and Department of Homeland Security's First Responders Group Lessons Learned: Social Media and Hurricane Sandy.


[1]Internet of things: "Physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment." Source: Gartner IT,

[2] 2013 National Preparedness Report. Federal Emergency Management Agency.  May 30, 2013, p. 15.

[3] Wrap Up Report: Humanity Road Social Media Response Super Typhoon Haiyan Philippines 2013.  Humanity Road. 

[4] Lessons Learned: Social Media and Hurricane Sandy. Virtual Social Media Working Group, Department of Homeland Security First Responders Group. June 2013, p. 19.

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