On February 6th, 2023, a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked southern Turkey and northern Syria, followed by a 7.6 aftershock. The disaster caused widespread damage and casualties, affecting millions of people in cities like Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş, Hatay, Malatya, Adana, Urfa and Adiyaman12. The Turkish government declared a state of emergency and requested international assistance.
In response to this crisis, the Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST) Portugal activated its volunteers to provide digital support to the authorities on the ground. VOST Portugal is part of VOST Europe, a network of teams that use social media and other online tools to collect and verify information during emergencies.
One of the tasks that VOST Portugal performed was geolocating requests for help that were posted on Twitter by people affected by the earthquake. Geolocation is the process of identifying the precise location of a tweet or other online content based on clues such as coordinates, landmarks, street names or maps.
VOST Portugal collaborated with Valerio Lorini from the Joint Research Center (JRC), a scientific service of the European Commission that provides independent evidence for policy making. Lorini developed an algorithm that automatically extracts geolocation information from tweets and assigns them a confidence score based on their accuracy.
Using this algorithm and manual verification by volunteers, VOST Portugal was able to geolocate hundreds of tweets at different levels: precise (exact coordinates or address), street (street name or intersection) or area (neighborhood or district). The resulting product was a map that showed where people were asking for help, what kind of help they needed and how urgent it was.
This map was delivered to the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), a service of the European Commission that coordinates humanitarian aid operations around the world. The ERCC then passed it on to the operationals on the ground who could use it to prioritize their interventions and allocate their resources more efficiently.
This project demonstrated once again the potential of having Virtual Operations Support Teams activated when major disasters happen. By using their skills and technology to gather and analyze online data, they can provide valuable information that can save lives and reduce suffering.