In addition to helping members of the public share their thoughts around the globe, Twitter is also helping structural and geotechnical engineers monitor damage to critical infrastructure assets during natural disasters. 

Tweets sent during a flooding disaster in Colorado last year have proven to be of immense assistance to engineers seeking to analyse damage to affected infrastructure assets.

According to a new study from the University of Colorado Boulder, information posted by users of the popular social network Twitter during extensive flooding on Colorado’s Front Range provided engineers with a trove of critical information, particularly concerning infrastructure in hard to access areas.

twitter-lyons flood

“Because the flooding was widespread it impacted many canyons and closed off access to communities for a long duration, making it difficult to a get a reconnaissance team on the ground,” said Shideh Dashti, an assistant professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering at CU-Boulder and co-author of the study.

The flooding occurred during in the middle of September last year, and saw 17 inches of rain – equivalent to nearly a year’s worth of precipitation, descend upon Front Range over a five-day period. The flooding left nine people dead, forced over 1,000 people to evacuate their homes by helicopter, and destroyed more than 1,800 homes.

All told, the disaster inflicted a staggering $2.9 billion in damage to homes and infrastructure assets, including bridges and roads.

Dashti points out that the incessant nature of the heavy storms which caused the floods precluded the use of airborne reconnaissance to assess infrastructure damage as the disaster continued. The authorities instead turned to social media and other remote information sources to collect reconnaissance data.

“People were tweeting amazing pictures and video of damage to bridges and other infrastructure systems,” Dashti said. “After the fact we compared those tweets to the damage reported by engineer reconnaissance teams and they were well correlated.”

The information amassed via Twitter is especially valuable given the critical role it plays in subsequent analysis of infrastructure resilience, and the limited opportunity for collecting such data under real world circumstances.

Disasters like the flooding in Denver last year do have one silver lining – they enable geotechnical and structural engineers to collect data on the performance of key infrastructure assets under conditions of extreme duress. This information is critical for engineers hoping to devise better designs and mathematical formulas in hopes of creating more robust structures in future.

The timeframe for collecting such information is usually very brief, however, given the challenges and hazards posed by entering recovery areas, as well as the the expeditious pace of clean-up efforts.

The images and data provided by tweets give engineers up-to-date information on which locations have seen significant infrastructure damage, enabling them to focus their limit resources and attention on these areas.

Project EPIC (Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis), which was launched in 2009 to study social media usage during disasters, served as the chief platform for providing engineers with convenient access to reconnaissance data during last year’s floods.

“Project EPIC recorded tweets during the floods,” said Dashti. “We provided the EPIC team with keywords that are relevant to disaster reconnaissance and infrastructure performance, which allowed us to filter the tweets to a manageable number for further analysis.”

Dashti now hopes to develop a platform which combines data on infrastructure damage gathered via social media with other voluntarily submitted by users, potentially by means of a smartphone app.

“My goal is to eventually feed information on damage distribution back to the user,” she said. “You provide information and as a result, you gain access to live, mapped information provided by other users during a disaster.”