How relevant is social media in a control room?

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Social media have become a common way of communication, and are being adopted by organizations worldwide, in sectors ranging from marketing to education to healthcare. Businesses use social networking sites – like Facebook and Twitter – to make their brands more visible, improve service, and gain new insights in their customers’ wishes and behaviors. The numerous business benefits of social media include: connecting people, recommending resources, identifying expertise, and distributing content. But are social media also relevant in a control room environment?


Twitpic as a social media sensor

One promising possibility is to harness social media as a new type of sensor to serve control rooms. Consider the use of TwitPic, a website that allows users to post pictures to the Twitter micro-blogging service.

Today, TwitPic is frequently used by citizen ‘journalists’ to upload and distribute pictures in real-time as an event is taking place. This could be photos of a rock concert, but also images of the big accident and giant traffic jam leading to that festival. In other words, it is the place where you can find the most accurate and up-to-date information available of an incident.

Such a ‘social media sensor’ could well be used to consolidate and broadcast real-time information at public events and sites. The tool can also be useful in combating crime and in locating missing persons.

People help the people

In addition, there is already an informal basis for this kind of data gathering. The ‘Standby Task Force’ is a group of volunteers that put their skills at the service of crisis mapping deployments around the world. These informal channels could be of great help in real-time crisis management situations, supplementing the control room’s established formal channels with valuable information.

The challenge for control room operators will be to go from monitoring a fixed set of sensors, to pinpointing the sensors that provide the best information. From data gathering to data mining, you could say. This will require a new range of specialists and tools, so be prepared for some drastic changes.

So what’s holding us back?

As you might expect, there are also a number of drawbacks that need to be considered when trying to incorporate public data into a controlled environment. First thing that comes to mind is how to separate the wheat from the chaff. In the tsunami of messages flooding in, you need to filter out the few which are really relevant. One possibility could be to scan all tweets coming from a certain location using triangulation of the mobile device signal. This may not be the simplest solution, but might give the best results.

Another issue is that of malicious people posting false information. Either as a bad joke, or to willingly sabotage the operations. Dealing with these challenges will be a very hot topic for control rooms software manufacturers in the coming years. As an example, here’s a fastcompany article about the concern on how to fight the misinformation on social media of the spread of Ebola. If you have some great ideas to tackle these issues, I advise you to start your own company and develop the necessary tools: the offers will be rolling in!

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