Beirut blast: Insights into using open-source data for humanitarian purposes

Analysis and Commentary, Emerging Technologies, Featured, News

Images and videos of the explosion that rocked the port and destroyed much of Beirut, Lebanon on August 4 spread quickly on social media. In real time, viewers could see the extent of the devastation and witness the many lives ruined or tragically altered.

Following almost immediately was an onslaught of speculation, as people searched for the cause of the catastrophe. Twitter was particularly active, providing information and disinformation, conspiracy theories, and both right and wrong assessments.

It is still true, however, that social media offer us windows into experiences that might not otherwise be captured, providing a more comprehensive understanding of the scale of emergencies. But we need to know how to find those windows.

So, as humanitarian organizations continue to explore the uses of open-source data, they, and all analysts who use these sources, must be prepared to do their due diligence to ensure that the information they gather is accurate and verifiable. Only then can they base actions on that data.

Rapidly unfolding events

After the initial videos of Beirut were posted, news media organizations and other observers in the region started to share footage more widely. Material was posted on Twitter and then retweeted. Soon, the events in Beirut were trending around the world.

The rapid transmission of information on social media platforms can be incredibly valuable in alerting governments and humanitarian organizations around the world to critical situations. Emergency responses can begin immediately. And because of all the detail provided, especially in images and videos, respondents have a better idea of the extent and type of emergency and can prepare more usefully. This information can also aid analysts in determining the causes of catastrophes.

In the case of the port explosion, early alarmist accounts tweeted that a nuclear device had been detonated. As BBC disinformation specialist Marianna Spring explained, one such tweet was shared by thousands of people. The result was a media explosion of conspiracy theories, with different regional actors blamed for an apparent attack.

Fortunately, early images already pointed to the cause. Experts saw the reddish smoke and were fairly certain that ammonium nitrate was involved. This quick assessment helped to quell notions of conspiracy and Twitter removed the offending nuclear tweets.

How humanitarian organizations should use social media

The use of social media by humanitarian organizations is not new. Several leading United Nations organizations, along with many other groups, use media platforms to stay current with conditions on the ground and to effectively communicate with affected populations. They know the benefits—and drawbacks—of these communication tools. They see the need to keep on top of the technology.

So, in 2017, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), with support from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), released a guide on ways to better engage the population impacted in an emergency.

But technology is changing quickly. As well, different situations require different practices. Reaching out to people in war zones and gathering data on current conditions during a war is different from gathering data and helping survivors after a hurricane. So, even more instruction and guidance on how to use social media effectively is needed. Humanitarian organizations need to know how to assess this information and how to use it safely and effectively.

Finding credible evidence

Credible evidence can be hard to discern in the virtual mountain of posts generated by a large-scale event. Within a few minutes of the Beirut explosion, thousands of tweets had been posted. Of course, many are retweeted and there are tools, such as those that allow for scraping, that will winnow out most duplications.

It is critical to establish the veracity of the posted information. It is important to know if the images or videos were taken at the time of the emergency, or before or after. And are the images “true” or have they been manipulated in some way? Can this evidence be trusted? Only once trust has been established, can organizations use open-source data as a basis for decision-making and broader analysis of the crisis.

As well, it is vital to determine which information requires immediate action. In this instance, tweets or posts in the domestic language are most likely to reveal useful facts, such as the extent of damage. So, skills in the appropriate domestic language(s) are critical. Technological developments in artificial intelligence can be used to build tools that can scan multiple websites and forums in different languages.

Crucially, social media provides important views into the experiences of ordinary individuals. If individuals have access to social media platforms, they can provide information about the emergency event that can be analyzed at a granular level. Humanitarian organizations and governments wanting to assist in an emergency can quickly assess how useful their aid or assistance programs would be in different villages, and cities and regions.

However the data relating to emergencies and crises is used, it is important to acknowledge the deep impacts on individuals and communities. Appropriate standards on dealing with sensitive situations is needed and should also be the subject of further discussion in the future.

The images posted by Beirut’s citizens show clear evidence of widespread destruction that cannot be ignored. As humanitarian organizations and countries, including Canada, seek to provide support and aid, they should do so duly instructed in social media and how to best use these tools in crisis situations.

Photo: A screenshot from a viral video posted on Twitter on August 4 showing a massive explosion in Beirut.

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