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UC Honors Seminar Explores the Use of Social Networks in Disaster Recovery

Students are challenged to research, design and create a mobile application that could be a lifesaver when disaster strikes.

Date: 3/28/2013 8:31:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823

UC ingot   Severe storm season is getting underway in the Tristate, which has already marked the one-year anniversary of the tornado that leveled Moscow, Ohio, on March 2, 2012. University of Cincinnati students in a University Honors seminar, meanwhile, are rounding out spring semester examining how social media can benefit storm and other disaster victims, and the people rushing to provide aid in the minutes, hours and days after disaster strikes.

The course is led by Hazem Said, associate professor and head of the IT Department in the College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services (CECH). He says that by the end of the semester, four teams of four students will present on how they researched, designed and developed an application that can be useful when a disaster occurs.

The University Honors Program comprises the top 7 percent of UC undergraduate students from across colleges and disciplines. University Honors focuses on unique and challenging academic and hands-on experiences that reflect the themes of community engagement, global study, leadership, research and the creative arts.

As the Social Networks and Disaster Recovery seminar got underway, Said says he surveyed the students to examine the diversity in their problem-solving talents, and then divided them into teams. Each team included a student with an IT or computer science background, but the class also holds a diversity of majors including nursing, graphic design, e-media and biomedical engineering.

Once students were divided into the four groups, they were challenged to research how social networks were used in the days or weeks following a natural disaster. Each of the teams examined one particular event: Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the 2007 California wildfires and the 2004 tsunami that struck Indonesia.

“Students will be defining an audience for their app, the core functionality – what the app is going to do – and the technology platform,” says Said. “As they’ve explored who is engaged in social networking when a natural disaster happens, they’ll also be investigating what could be missing as they consider the needs of first responders, local and federal governments, nonprofits, disaster victims, the media and so on.

“For instance, when Hurricane Sandy struck, FEMA set up a Twitter account to direct people to information on finding assistance, shelters and more. Special interest groups were utilizing Facebook to connect people with missing pets, shelters, repair services and power sources,” explains Said.

“A lot of disaster organizations have Twitter feeds and Twitter lists, so they can tweet news – live – as it happens,” says Honors student Irini Sfyris, a second-year biomedical engineering major from Wyoming, Ohio.  “Because of that ‘in the moment’ immediacy, Twitter can be a good resource just after a disaster happens.” Sfyris and the college population in general have grown up in the age of digital literacy. Despite her praise for using Twitter for disasters, she says her personal social networking preference is Facebook.

The students, including  Sfyris, will be doing presentations on their developed applications toward the end of the semester.

The UC2019 Academic Master Plan sets a goal for 100 percent of UC’s graduates to participate in experiential learning. The Academic Master Plan has delegated $4.25 million in targeted funding to enhance the student experience – including study abroad and the University Honors Program for academically talented students.