VOST Students Use Social Media to Aid Texas Wildfire Recovery Efforts

UAlbany VOST students review their social media report for the Texas Division of Emergency Management.
From left: UAlbany VOST students Michael Cavotta, Shannon Crowley and Katie Bobinski. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

ALBANY, N.Y. (April 12, 2022) – Three students on UAlbany’s Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST) answered a call for support from the Texas Division of Emergency Management last month as dozens of wildfires ravaged the state.

VOST is a global movement in which trusted teams of experts monitor social media feeds for information that can help to better manage a crisis. UAlbany’s VOST is student-led, operated through the mentorship of Amber Silver, an assistant professor at the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (CEHC) and director of the Crisis Informatics Lab.

Silver had been in contact with the Texas Division of Emergency Management for several months about starting up their own VOST. She received a call from the agency’s community recovery unit chief in late March about activating UAlbany VOST to build a report for their office. Within a few hours, the students were sorting through social media chatter to collect relevant data.

Their first report was sent less than 24 hours after activation, followed by a second the following morning.

“When I received the call from our contact at the Texas Division of Emergency Management, there were multiple wildfires burning across the state and a lot of widespread damage,” said Silver. “They were running at max capacity and asked for our support in rapidly mobilizing to monitor information being shared on social media.”

“I cannot begin to express the amount of flexibility, professionalism, dedication, and passion that our students demonstrated over the 36-hour activation.”

Texas Wildfire Activation 

CEHC's Amber Silver monitors social media from her desk inside the Crisis Informatics Lab.
Amber Silver, CEHC assistant professor and Crisis Informatics Lab director. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

The Texas Division of Emergency Management requested that the UAlbany VOST team narrow their focus to three areas: identifying pop-up shelter sites, offers of financial aid, and assistance for debris removal.

To build the reports, the students reviewed thousands of social media posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using targeted keyword terms and hashtags. Each report offered general themes, engagement numbers and individual posts of interest that fit into the three focus areas.

The VOST team includes Katie Bobinski, a junior Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (EHC) and Criminal Justice major, Michael Cavotta, a senior Informatics major and Shannon Crowley, a junior EHC and Communications major.

“It was a little nerve-racking to be activated in a real crisis scenario, but we were very prepared for the moment,” said Bobinski. “It was a rewarding experience and felt really good to know our reports were being used to help guide Texas’ recovery efforts.”

“Social media has become an essential tool for crisis communication and bridges the connection between both of my majors,” added Crowley. “This was our first real activation as a team and a great learning experience that will translate into whatever career I chose after graduation.”

Disaster Recovery Support

Texas Division of Emergency Management leaders met with the students last weekend to explain how the information they gathered was being used to direct recovery efforts. The experience was so positive that it “cemented their decision to get their own VOST going,” according to Silver.

The agency is writing a formal letter of appreciation to each of the students to include in their professional portfolios.

“Social media has become such an integral part of our lives that it’s hard to avoid at this point,” said Cavotta. “Knowing how to properly sort through large amounts of information being shared online is an important skill to have in any field, especially emergency management. I’m glad we were offered this opportunity and stand ready for future activations.”

The current cohort of VOST students is receiving credit through CEHC’s Research and Internship in Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity course. The experience also counts toward the college’s required 100 training hours prior to graduation.

Silver is recruiting students for future semesters from all applicable majors. Students with interest are encouraged to contact her.