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Tracking Crises

Rather distinct from, yet related to how crises evolve, is how to spot and track them, a challenge CrisisTracker, “a new tool for collaborative social media analysis in disaster response” based on open source information, is tackling. More specifically, CrisisTracker aims at creating an “overview of what is being said in social media (including rumors and bias towards specific topics)”, with real-time sentiment analysis being a hot topic in SOCMINT generally. A video introduction to the project by its developers can be found here.

By viewerblur @flickr / CC NC-ND 2.0

By viewerblur @flickr / CC NC-ND 2.0

As opposed to Ushahidi, CrisisTracker is not primarily fed by user-submitted reports (although individual ‘curators’ can tag stories, eliminate duplicates and, thus, help improving the underlying taxonomy), but it is automatically detecting and mining Twitter feeds. Its developers claim that their solution works best during “complex large-scale events”, and indeed – taking the latest and ongoing developments in Israel as one example for testing – it seems to deliver a solid visualization of that crisis’ epicenter and its massive propagandistic ‘fog of war’ on all sides involved. Some commentators have even called the current conflict between Israel and the Hamas the “first social-media” war, with Israel tweeting airstrikes and warnings to Hamas.

Of course, what CrisisTracker does not – like other such approaches, e.g. the European Media Monitor which is fed by media reports – offer, is analytical context, so for now it appears to be a still impressive crises-specific mapping and event-specific categorization of Twitter’s trending topics (we have seen visualizations of those before on Trendsmap or WhatTheTrend), given that the data allows for geotagging. One valuable next step in developing the tool further would certainly be an automated translation function, for many relevant items are written in Arabic – not least due to the political fragility of the whole region. More critical though is a technical aspect inherent to real-time crowdsourcing: the lack of verification and validation. Thus, CrisisTracker’s curation regime, giving more weight to information that has been curated as compared to mere raw data, is crucial for due diligence, but eventually we have to take the platform for what it is: an attention-, and not a fact-meter. If we keep that in mind, it serves as a promising experiment, and one you can help improving as it is licensed as open source software.


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