How social media can help in disaster response

By Angel Amaya

The power of social media was evident as Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on Houston. With many parts of the city still underwater, Facebook and Twitter posts helped rescuers find those stranded by the historic flooding. Hashtags like #sosHarvey and #helphouston were used to flag citizen rescuers, and accounts like @HarveyRescue compiled databases of addresses and names of folks in critical need throughout the storm. Residents of the city’s Manchester neighborhood, meanwhile, turned to social media to draw attention to strange odors from a storm-damaged refinery nearby.

Unfortunately, those posts also can be hard to find. So Public Citizen and One Breath Partnership are putting together a platform to bring information being shared through various social media platforms, both official and eyewitness accounts, during natural disaster and emergency situations to a single place. The idea is to inform Houstonians in almost real-time, so that they can make decisions to protect their own health and safety.

Emerging News Sources

We are building this tool as the use of data, and particularly open source data, has become instrumental to reaching audiences reliant on media. Social media has become a major source for daily news in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news on social media, and one in five does so often.

Emergency Response is New Media Response

Hurricane Harvey taught us many lessons about how to use data in emergencies. We can use this type of new reporting for dangerous storms, as well as environmentally hazardous events. Our idea? Create a social media news aggregator that pulls in relevant news posted on social media and places it on a single page. For our purposes, we envisioned this data in the form of a scrolling feed (linked to source social media platform) and a map detailing each event. Such a tool could increase community awareness during an emergency.

I presented the idea of a social media news aggregator map at the 2018 Houston Hackathon. With a 24-hour deadline and a team of frontend developers, backend developers, data scientists, and web designers, a prototype of the map was developed.


Live Universal Awareness Map

After the Houston Hackathon, Public Citizen and One Breath Partnership connected with others doing similar work for advice moving forward with our map.

Inspirations included the iWitness Pollution Map in Louisiana:


And the Live Universal Awareness Map of Syria:


We developed a partnership with the Live Universal Awareness Map team to create a map of the Houston area for pollution events, environmental hazards, and chemical disasters. Today, this map lives at the subdomain To get real-time information about incidents that affect people’s health and environment, we distinguished categories of events with corresponding keywords and open source accounts.


Subject Matter Focus

The Houston Live UA Map has two focus areas: manmade and natural disasters. Man-made disasters include explosions, fires, chemical releases with strong odors, truck crashes leading to road closures and traffic jams, marine vessel crashes leading to closure of the Houston Ship Channel, releases of toxic air pollution, spills into waterways, illegal dumping of solid or hazardous waste, shelter in place orders, and pipeline leaks, among others. In the heavily industrial Houston region, extreme weather frequently leads to manmade disasters.


Identifying Content: Keywords and Accounts

The members of the One Breath Partnership have already begun building a list of keywords to search and accounts to follow. Based on feedback during our conversation with the Live UA Map team, we have set a target of 300 keywords and 1,000 accounts.

We will list keywords in the following subject matter areas:

  • Natural disasters (floods, tropical storms, and hurricanes).
  • Industrial fires and explosions.
  • Plant startup, shutdown, and maintenance events.
  • Marine vessel collisions and Ship Channel closure.
  • Commercial truck crashes or spills leading to freeway closures (if possible, focus on trucks carrying hazardous chemicals).
  • Air pollution events.
  • Odor complaints.
  • Water pollution events.
  • Boil water notices.
  • Illegal dumping of solid waste or hazardous waste.
  • Pipeline leaks or ruptures.
  • Community evacuations or shelter-in-place orders.

For accounts and websites to follow, we will start with Twitter and expand to Facebook, Instagram, and other open source material such as websites and blogs. The broad categories of accounts we will identify are:

  • Government agencies
  • News media
  • Industry
  • NGOs
  • Weather


Moving forward

The Houston Live UA Map is live on the web in a prototype stage. Please visit to see the map in action. We would like your feedback on how this data driven tool can better serve the public in a time of crisis.

It is our hope that such a map would provide people with information that helped them to limit their exposure to hazardous or dangerous conditions. It would also assist us in our advocacy goals of reducing pollution, disasters, and other risks to human health and the environment.


Angel Amaya is press officer for Public Citizen’s Texas office.

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