Tweet this: Emergency communications takes on a new partner

In late October, super storm Sandy knocked the Northeast to its knees, initiating a transition from traditional methods of emergency communication such as televised press conferences and emergency radio broadcasts, to the use of Internet social media to...

“By monitoring a social network such as Twitter, researchers can capture comments from people with the flu who are sending out status messages,” said computer science and industrial technology professor Aron Culotta. Culotta said because Twitter monitoring is done in real time, it is able to detect outbreaks sooner than by traditional means of polling hospitals.

To get started, Culotta analyzed more than 500 million Twitter messages over the eight-month period of August 2009 to May 2010, collected using Twitter’s application programming interface. By using a few keywords to track rates of influenza-related messages, he obtained a 95-percent correlation with national health statistics. Initially, Culotta collected statistics for the whole country, but future work will extract information from messages more location-specific, which will allow regional reporting.

First light

There’s always a chance, of course, that there may be no network available in the aftermath of a devastating emergency. Power could be out for days. When the winds of super storm Sandy stopped, power was out in places from as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as the Carolinas, in some cases for weeks.

In anticipation of lengthy, blanket power outages, university researchers are testing a solar-powered emergency communication network—and therefore self-sustainable. This research, called Emergency Mesh by its University of Arkansas developers, is meant to distribute hazard alerts and map-based relief information to users during the aftermath of a natural or terror-related disaster. Researchers say everyone—disaster teams, police, fire, and members of the public— can use the system.

“There may be no network connectivity or access to the power grid after disasters,” said Arkansas computer science and engineering professor Nilanjan Banerjee. “Emergency Mesh would provide continuous, uninterrupted service on energy harvested from solar panels when the power grid or wireless systems are out of commission.”

Once deployed, the network could warn citizens how to get out of harm’s way and could also help emergency personnel reach victims faster. Banerjee said the network is a set of interconnected low-power solar panels. Users would use their smartphones or other mobile devices to connect to the network over Wi-Fi, similar to connecting to Wi-Fi access points at home.

“It’s important that Emergency Mesh communicates using popular, ubiquitous mobile devices, such as smartphones, because during chaotic and stressful times people need to rely on something that is already familiar to them,” Banerjee says. The system is designed so that map-based directions to relief camps or food stores can be downloaded to mobile devices.

Banerjee adds that the mesh can be thought of as a network of nodes that blanket a geographic area. Each solar-powered node contains geographic data that can be downloaded to users or communicated node-to-node, which is important in the event that a node or series of nodes fail, in which case the mesh is designed to automatically redistribute data to maintain service.


Douglas Page writes about science, technology and medicine from Pine Mountain, Calif. He can be reached at

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