By Jonathon Morgan

Hurricane season is upon us, and with it the promise of communities rocked by natural disasters. Perhaps a silver lining is that, no matter how bad it gets, good samaritans emerge from the chaos, eager to lend a hand. With a new season of storms on the horizon (including two predicted US landfalls), we wanted to know more about these everyday hereos, rushing to help neighbors in need. Essentially we wanted to learn: Who helps when crisis hits?

We talked to Hemant Purohit, a researcher at the Ohio Center of Excellence in Knowledge-enabled Computing (Kno.e.sis). Hemant's work in machine learning, natural language processing and network analysis is focused on using social networks in crisis response, in particular identifying which tweets were requests for, or offers of help. This software is now integrated into CrisisNET and producing interesting results.

To demonstrate this new feature, we analyzed over 20,000 tweets from the UK floods early this year, using Hemant's technology and the CrisisNET platform in an attempt to understand how the online community responds to crisis.

Samaritans Among Us

Obviously our investigation assumes that people are helping in the first place. As noted in the graph at the top of the article, even though Twitter is flooded with posts about disasters as they occur, only a small fraction are focused on helping those affected by the crisis. But if we dig into the data, there's hope for humanity after all. Even if the overall number of tweets was small, those who did try to help were immediately engaged, and their passion didn't waver as the crisis wore on.


Everybody Chips In

Not only was there a small, dedicated group of do-gooders asking for help during the disaster, but the requests came from every strata of Twitter society.


You might expect that popular users would jump on the disaster bandwagon then lose interest as the crisis wore on. In fact the average popularity of users asking for help was consistent throughout the crisis.


These requests weren't just easy asks for money. When we looked into what people were tweeting about, we found that tweets asking for volunteers were four times more common than tweets asking for donations.


Aspirationally Altruistic

Our socially conscious friends on Twitter are indeed inspiring, but it's worth noting that, while altruistic enthusiasm was consistent throughout the crisis, people were more than three times as likely to encourage others to thelp than they were to offer help themselves.


Does it Matter?

Do you think social media has a role to play in disaster relief? Does it matter if you tweet about volunteering or donating during a crisis? Let us know on Twitter, we're @CrisisNET.