Friday, August 22, 2008

Emergency Alerts Via Facebook And MySpace Are New Ways To Reach Students

Emergency Alerts via Facebook and MySpace Are New Ways to Reach Students / By JEFFREY R. YOUNG

Chronicle of Higher Education / Friday, August 22, 2008

Colleges are experimenting with Facebook and other social networks to notify students about emergencies like crimes and floods—and get vital information in return. Most emergency-alert systems send out warnings. But social networks give students a chance to add on-the-scene reports or trade information if trouble hits. In addition to cell-phone and e-mail alerts, the social networks also give colleges yet another way to reach students in a crisis.

The prospect has some safety officials excited by the possibilities of letting students trade crisis information over Facebook and MySpace, but others worried that it could open an alert system up to misleading rumors.

The University of Maryland at College Park set up a Facebook group last month for "emergency awareness" at the university. Any emergency message that the university issues on its other alert systems, which can go to cell phones, university Web pages, and e-mail accounts, will also be posted to the Facebook group. The group also lists tips about emergency preparedness, photographs of drills by emergency staff, and other information.

"Students aren't using traditional methods of getting information from authorities," said Maj. Jay Gruber, of the university's police department. "So I wanted to think outside the box and think of ways that students do get information."


A group of researchers at the university is also working to build a prototype of a homemade social network for the university's Web site designed for use in emergency situations. The project is an outgrowth of work by Ben Shneiderman, a professor of computer science at the university, and Jennifer J. Preece, dean of the university's College of Information Studies. They published an article in Science last year proposing that local governments develop social networks to supplement 911 emergency hotlines.


Now a graduate student at Maryland, Philip Fei Wu, is building a prototype for university use. "We hope to create a platform to allow students to communicate, to exchange ideas, to comment on ideas" in an emergency, Mr. Wu said in an interview.


Officials at the University of California at Los Angeles have been working with MySpace to build a system that will automatically post emergency alerts to a university MySpace page. [snip]

The project was proposed and led by a Sara Cohen, who worked as an intern in Mr. Burns's office while she was a graduate student at UCLA. Ms. Cohen lived in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and found MySpace and Facebook to be the best sources of information then because cell-phone networks and other communication systems suffered outages, and she thought the university could proactively use social networks in future disasters.

Mr. Burns said the university hopes to share the computer code it has developed with other colleges. [snip]

At least a few other colleges—including Florida State University and the University of Iowa—are also exploring creating MySpace or Facebook pages for use in emergency alerts.


No comments: