June 19, 2017 3:38 pm
Updated: June 20, 2017 11:30 am

Fort McMurray wildfire tweets show key info missing during disasters: U of C

WATCH ABOVE: Tweets sent during the Fort McMurray wildfire show key information is missing from emergency apps. That's according to a new study out of the University of Calgary. Emily Mertz has the details.

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Researchers at the University of Calgary say smartphone emergency apps don’t provide much of the information people need during a disaster.

Doctoral candidate Maleknaz Nayebi says Fort McMurray residents were flocking to social media during last May’s wildfire, but a lot of vital information was easily missed in the heavy online traffic.

WATCH: University of Calgary researchers Maleknaz Nayebi and Guenther Ruhe join Global Calgary to discuss a new study suggesting Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees struggled to find answers online.


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Researchers at the Schulich School of Engineering designed a program to sort through nearly 70,000 tweets sent out by evacuees and found 80 per cent of the critical information people were searching for online could not be found. That includes everything from food and water requests to the location of the nearest gas station or hospital.

“[It’s] a fundamental problem in software engineering, particularly in climate engineering,” research supervisor Guenther Ruhe said.

“Understanding people’s needs is one of the most difficult things, especially because things are changing so dynamically. Social media and tweets and all that provides us an excellent opportunity to make that better.”

Lead researcher Nayebi told News Talk 770 there are many apps for emergencies but they are missing the mark.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Residents take to social media as situation intensifies 

“The most surprising part is that the top 10 most essential features that we found, none of them is now supported by any of the 26 apps that are intended to help people in wildfire emergencies,” she said.

Using a program called MAPFEAT – which stands for Mining App Features from Tweets – the most common queries were matched up with features provided in 26 wildfire and emergency apps.

The researchers found only six of the top 40 concerns identified through MAPFEAT were addressed by existing apps and none in the top 10 were covered.

LISTEN: Research shows smartphone emergency apps don’t provide enough information in a disaster

The study found the top 10 features that would have helped evacuees the most were:

1. Fire alarm notification

2. Food and water requests and resource

3. Emergency maintenance service

4. Send emergency text messages

5. Safety guidelines

6. Fire and safeness warning

7. Request ambulance at a tap

8. Find nearest gas station

9. Emergency zones maps

10. Find a medical centre

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Politicians, athletes react to emergency on social media 

The researchers hope MAPFEAT will give future software developers a better sense of what people really need in a crisis. Nayebi suggests the program could fill a void left by Twitter and Facebook, which she says are not meeting people’s needs.

“This [program] shows that software is really having some shortcomings. This is usually the case for many software products, but when it comes to people and emergency situations, it is more critical to pay attention to what you are designing.”

READ MORE: Report into Fort McMurray wildfire cites communications breakdown in early days 

“We were able to leverage the value of social media information and bring the functionality of apps to a new level by better addressing the real concerns of the people and to understand what the real concerns are,” Ruhe said, “and even proving, by the crowd analysis, that this is much more valuable in the end than what the other commercial providers have thought about.”

Nayebi said it is not just natural disasters – like fires and floods – where this lack of information is an issue, but terror attacks as well.

“Right now countries have many problems with this and this could be pretty useful for designing an app to provide support when people are panicked,” she explained.

The research was presented at the International Conference on Software Engineering in Buenos Aires last month.

Crowdsourced Exploration of Mobile App Features by Anonymous TdomnV9OD4 on Scribd

— With files from Global News and The Canadian Press

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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