Mapping the Pain via Social Media

Women refugees from Syria queue to register on...
Women refugees from Syria queue to register on arrival at the Za’atari camp in Jordan (Photo credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development)

Earlier this week I was perusing the NPR website, hoping to find a new episode of “First Listen” and trying to find some new music to spice up my selection on iTunes. Instead of discovering a new favorite artist, I uncovered a new use for social media that I never knew existed— crowdsourcing. (Read the article here.)

The story was about how public health officials and human-rights groups are using social media tools to track the instances of rape and other sexual violence in Syria. The civil war there has seen a large increase in the amount of sexual violence towards women (and men). Activists claim that the Assad regime is using rape as a method of torture and control, while the loyalists claim the rebels are the ones who are attacking civilians. Regardless of political standing, it is evident that gross violations of human rights are being committed towards the Syrian people.

In Middle Eastern culture, there are many stigmas connected to speaking out about rape. Victims are often afraid to come forward, which allows perpetrators to continue attacks. The Women Under Siege project scours social media outlets like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and various blogs to discover and report information about sexual violence.

Each instance is then marked and included on this map. This then gives public health officials an opportunity to see where the greatest number of acts are being committed and attempt to prevent further attacks by warning and monitoring areas that are deemed risky and problematic. In addition, the same group is using similar methods to plot all deaths in Syria. The fascinatingly sad data can be found here.

In the original story, the sources discuss how they believe this is the first instance of data such as this being tracked in real time. I find this exciting, as it helps show how social media can be used for more than sharing pictures or opinions on music. Rather, uses like these can help understand how the world works, or at least what is going on. Lives could potentially be saved because of this project. With all due respect to memes, I don’t believe the chemistry cat will ever have as important of an impact on the world.

The possibilities of this kind of usage are limitless. Google already tracks and identifies where outbreaks of influenza are occurring— check it out here. If social media information is added into the mix, many other community-based events, both positive and negative, may be more easily identified. When you get past all the potential privacy concerns, it seems like a pretty neat idea.

When I was reading this story, all I could think about were epidemiology movies and stories such as “And the Band Played On,” “I Am Legend” and “Contagion.” How could the scenarios in these films have differed/benefited from having social media help track their respective outbreaks?


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