Tag Archives: center

Behind the Scenes: The Digital Operations Center of the American Red Cross

The Digital Operations Center at the American Red Cross is an important and exciting development. I recently sat down with Wendy Harman to learn more about the initiative and to exchange some lessons learned in this new world of digital  humanitarians. One common challenge in emergency response is scaling. The American Red Cross cannot be everywhere at the same time—and that includes being on social media. More than 4,000 tweets reference the Red Cross on an average day, a figure that skyrockets during disasters. And when crises strike, so does Big Data. The Digital Operations Center is one response to this scaling challenge.

Sponsored by Dell, the Center uses customized software produced by Radian 6 to monitor and analyze social media in real-time. The Center itself sits three people who have access to six customized screens that relate relevant information drawn from various social media channels. The first screen below depicts some of key topical areas that the Red Cross monitors, e.g., references to the American Red Cross, Storms in 2012, and Delivery Services.

Circle sizes in the first screen depict the volume of references related to that topic area. The color coding (red, green and beige) relates to sentiment analysis (beige being neutral). The dashboard with the “speed dials” right underneath the first screen provides more details on the sentiment analysis.

Lets take a closer look at the circles from the first screen. The dots “orbiting” the central icon relate to the categories of key words that the Radian 6 platform parses. You can click on these orbiting dots to “drill down” and view the individual key words that make up that specific category. This circles screen gets updated in near real-time and draws on data from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and blogs. (Note that the distance between the orbiting dots and the center does not represent anything).

An operations center would of course not be complete without a map, so the Red Cross uses two screens to visualize different data on two heat maps. The one below depicts references made on social media platforms vis-a-vis storms that have occurred during the past 3 days.

The screen below the map highlights the bio’s of 50 individual twitter users who have made references to the storms. All this data gets generated from the “Engagement Console” pictured below. The purpose of this web-based tool, which looks a lot like Tweetdeck, is to enable the Red Cross to customize the specific types of information they’re looking form, and to respond accordingly.

Lets look at the Consul more closely. In the Workflow section on the left, users decide what types of tags they’re looking for and can also filter by priority level. They can also specify the type of sentiment they’re looking, e.g., negative feelings vis-a-vis a particular issue. In addition, they can take certain actions in response to each information item. For example, they can reply to a tweet, a Facebook status update, or a blog post; and they can do this directly from the engagement consul. Based on the license that the Red Cross users, up to 25 of their team members can access the Consul and collaborate in real-time when processing the various tweets and Facebook updates.

The Consul also allows users to create customized timelines, charts and wordl graphics to better understand trends changing over time in the social media space. To fully leverage this social media monitoring platform, Wendy and team are also launching a digital volunteers program. The goal is for these volunteers to eventually become the prime users of the Radian platform and to filter the bulk of relevant information in the social media space. This would considerably lighten the load for existing staff. In other words, the volunteer program would help the American Red Cross scale in the social media world we live in.

Wendy plans to set up a dedicated 2-hour training for individuals who want to volunteer online in support of the Digital Operations Center. These trainings will be carried out via Webex and will also be available to existing Red Cross staff.


As  argued in this previous blog post, the launch of this Digital Operations Center is further evidence that the humanitarian space is ready for innovation and that some technology companies are starting to think about how their solutions might be applied for humanitarian purposes. Indeed, it was Dell that first approached the Red Cross with an expressed interest in contributing to the organization’s efforts in disaster response. The initiative also demonstrates that combining automated natural language processing solutions with a digital volunteer net-work seems to be a winning strategy, at least for now.

After listening to Wendy describe the various tools she and her colleagues use as part of the Operations Center, I began to wonder whether these types of tools will eventually become free and easy enough for one person to be her very own operations center. I suppose only time will tell. Until then, I look forward to following the Center’s progress and hope it inspires other emergency response organizations to adopt similar solutions.

Truthiness as Probability: Moving Beyond the True or False Dichotomy when Verifying Social Media

I asked the following question at the Berkman Center’s recent Symposium on Truthiness in Digital Media: “Should we think of truthiness in terms of probabili-ties rather than use a True or False dichotomy?” The wording here is important. The word “truthiness” already suggests a subjective fuzziness around the term. Expressing truthiness as probabilities provides more contextual information than does a binary true or false answer.

When we set out to design the SwiftRiver platform some three years ago, it was already clear to me then that the veracity of crowdsourced information ought to be scored in terms of probabilities. For example, what is the probability that the content of a Tweet referring to the Russian elections is actually true? Why use probabilities? Because it is particularly challenging to instantaneously verify crowdsourced information in the real-time social media world we live in.

There is a common tendency to assume that all unverified information is false until proven otherwise. This is too simplistic, however. We need a fuzzy logic approach to truthiness:

“In contrast with traditional logic theory, where binary sets have two-valued logic: true or false, fuzzy logic variables may have a truth value that ranges in degree between 0 and 1. Fuzzy logic has been extended to handle the concept of partial truth, where the truth value may range between completely true and completely false.”

The majority of user-generated content is unverified at time of birth. (Does said data deserve the “original sin” of being labeled as false, unworthy, until prove otherwise? To digress further, unverified content could be said to have a distinct wave function that enables said data to be both true and false until observed. The act of observation starts the collapse of said wave function. To the astute observer, yes, I’m riffing off Shroedinger’s Cat, and was also pondering how to weave in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as an analogy; think of a piece of information characterized by a “probability cloud” of truthiness).

I believe the hard sciences have much to offer in this respect. Why don’t we have error margins for truthiness? Why not take a weather forecast approach to information truthiness in social media? What if we had a truthiness forecast understanding full well that weather forecasts are not always correct? The fact that a 70% chance of rain is forecasted doesn’t prevent us from acting and using that forecast to inform our decision-making. If we applied binary logic to weather forecasts, we’d be left with either a 100% chance of rain or 100% chance of sun. Such weather forecasts would be at best suspect if not wrong rather frequently.

In any case, instead of dismissing content generated in real-time because it is not immediately verifiable, we can draw on Information Forensics to begin assessing the potential validity of said content. Tactics from information forensics can help us create a score card of heuristics to express truthiness in terms of probabilities. (I call this advanced media literacy). There are indeed several factors that one can weigh, e.g., the identity of the messenger relaying the content, the source of the content, the wording of said content, the time of day the information was shared, the geographical proximity of the source to the event being reported, etc.

These weights need not be static as they are largely subjective and temporal; after all, truth is socially constructed and dynamic. So while a “wisdom of the crowds” approach alone may not always be well-suited to generating these weights, perhaps integrating the hunch of the expert coupled with machine learning algorithms (based on lessons learned in information forensics) could result more useful decision-support tools for truthiness forecasting (or rather “backcasting”).

In sum, thinking of truthiness strictly in terms of true and false prevents us from “complexifying” a scalar variable into a vector (a wave function), which in turn limits our ability to develop new intervention strategies. We need new conceptual frameworks to reflect the complexity and ambiguity of user-generated content: