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Red Cross Guides Emergency Crews With Word Clouds

(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Joel Thomas
Joel is an Emmy Award winning journalist with more than 15 year...
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DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - When the clouds are dark outside, Dallas Red Cross volunteers now keep an eye on a cloud of words on a high definition monitor.  It’s called a word cloud.

Digital volunteers with keyboards in front of them sit in front of four, large HD monitors hanging on the wall of the Dallas headquarters.  Each monitor keeps a pulse on what people are tweeting about, where they’re tweeting from and who is tweeting.  A group of words of varying sizes floats on one of those monitors. That is the word cloud.  The more a word is used on Twitter the larger it becomes on screen.  And in the digital area when disaster strikes people Tweet — a lot.

The first day the system went on line in early April, storms struck north Texas.  The surge in Tweets guided emergency crews.

“We knew city names like Celeste, Princeton, that we really weren’t familiar with before,” recalled Red Cross Regional Communications Officer Anita Foster. “But we saw them pop up in our word cloud so we knew almost instantly where to talk to our disaster team about pushing trucks.

“If you’re talking about a tornado in Dallas we’re going to know about it and we’re going to see where things are occurring.”

Foster said the operations center is the only one of it’s kind outside of their national office in Washington D.C.

Once the disaster area is located Red Cross volunteers can actually communicate with the people who are tweeting. So, for the first time Red Cross digital volunteers were virtually in the storm with victims when deadly tornadoes rolled through Arkansas.

“When you’re sitting in front of that twitter stream in front of a computer it is really not impersonal,” Foster said. “People were tweeting: ‘I’m unable to find my uncle,’  ‘I don’t know where my step kids are,’ ‘I don’t know what’s happened to the town.  Please pray for us.’  And all of these messages were coming across very quickly. And Red Cross digital volunteers were there talking to people.”

The Red Cross is sharing the information with other disaster relief agencies who quickly need to know where the damage is and who needs help.

“To be able to see that literally at a glance is revolutionary for us as emergency responders,” Foster said.

The equipment was donated by Dell Computers and Foster said its used by Red Cross strictly for monitoring and responding to disaster situations. Foster said other agencies and companies are studying the effectiveness of how Red Cross uses the technology.

(©2014 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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