Social networks after an emergency: who did you text after the Boston Marathon bombings?

Minutes after the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, my sister called to make sure I was OK. Text messages from unfamiliar numbers began to arrive, checking in from afar. Those were the first of a number of phone calls, text messages, and e-mails that I exchanged to tell people what was happening and make sure they were safe.

The marathon bombings will become one of those events that are frozen in time, with people remembering exactly where they were and what they were doing when one of the city’s finest days turned to horror. Now, researchers at Northeastern University are asking people to download a smartphone app to help them understand how, exactly, we communicated and connected in the aftermath of a tragedy. Did we call the people we are in touch with most frequently, or were we flooded with voicemails and messages from people we haven’t spoken to in weeks or years? For now, they are asking people to answer a survey and provide information from their cellphones, but they also plan to look at some of the other ways people communicate online, such as Facebook and Twitter.

“From an emergency response point of view, you want to know how information disseminates among the population,” said David Lazer, a political science professor at Northeastern heading up the effort. From a more sociological perspective, too, communication patterns may reveal something about the texture of human life.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“The most important resource people have immediately in the aftermath of an emergency are the networks,” Lazer said. “So to understand how people utilize those networks, and what kind of relationships you have with the people you call—to what extent do we still rely on our kin network in this modern” day.

Already, the researchers have created an “emotional Tweet map”—a data visualization showing Twitter activity across the Boston area, through tracking Tweets that expressed fear words. The entire city began to blaze red with activity shortly after the bombs went off.

After Hurricane Sandy, the researchers designed a similar app that would allow them to examine communication patterns as a natural disaster unfolded. Now, they’re hoping to collect a similar and larger dataset that will help reveal how the reaction to the deadly blasts rippled through our social networks.

The data will be anonymized and researchers will not have access to the contents of messages or the identities of people. For every person that donates their data, the researchers are donating $3 to the One Fund that has been established for bombing victims.

Download the Northeastern University app here.