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UAlbany VOST Students Turn to Social Media in Times of Crisis

ALBANY, N.Y. (March 31, 2020) – Earlier this month, a small group of students on UAlbany’s Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST) gathered in their “situation room” to watch New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s press conference that would soon change the way public higher education is delivered this semester.

"CUNY and SUNY, starting March 19th, will move to a distance learning model," he said.

This was a call to action for the students. UAlbany’s VOST monitors social media activity around disaster and crisis situations caused by both man-made and natural hazards. Its team of student volunteers had been tracking COVID-19 since January. With the Governor’s announcement, however, they were now being impacted directly.

Like most other agencies and organizations across the state, VOST implemented a continuity plan and has maintained virtual operations amidst the uncertainty.

“There’s a large gap of information that social media fills,” said Derek Morrison, special assistant to the director at UAlbany’s National Center for Security and Preparedness (NCSP) and day-to-day manager of the VOST. “Our students are volunteering to monitor emergency situations/disasters on social media to help emergency management community filter this information and make informed decisions.”

Activating the VOST

The concept for VOST is a global movement, deploying trusted teams to monitor social media feeds for anything that can help better manage a crisis.

But, having a student-led, expert-guided team is innovative. UAlbany is the only SUNY school with an official VOST.

The idea was presented in a class project by College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC) alumnus Andrew McMahon and evolved through collaboration with Terry Hastings, a senior policy advisor at the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (DHSES).

VOST students watch Gov. Cuomo's announcement of SUNY/CUNY remote learning.
VOST students react to Gov. Cuomo's announcement of SUNY/CUNY transition to distance learning. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

UAlbany’s VOST has five students. They are an interdisciplinary mix of CEHC, Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences (DAES) and School of Business majors. The group operates within NCSP, working in partnership with CEHC’s Crisis Informatics Lab and other CEHC/DAES faculty experts.

The group creates two reports: one that looks at social media trends (including general themes, hashtags, engagements, and misinformation/disinformation) and a second that is a post-incident report for emergency management and public safety agencies to analyze best practices.

VOST student Austin Hyman views the team as a unique experiential learning opportunity.

“Experience with social media and crisis management is something that will be useful in my future career – whatever that might be,” said Hyman, a senior dual major in CEHC and the School of Business. “We are getting real-world experience, tailoring our reports for emergency managers, and working alongside students from many different backgrounds.”

Crisis Monitoring

New York has been more heavily impacted by COVID-19 than any other state. VOST is continuing to track social media trends in key areas, such as public reaction, agency response, mis-/disinformation and the impact on universities and vulnerable populations. Social media reports are sent to various state and local partners, including UAlbany’s administration.

Along with COVID-19, VOST has also continued to examine other incidents and hazards:

  • A magnitude 3.1 earthquake in South Glens Falls, March 11
  • An EF-2 tornado in Nashville, Tenn., March 3
  • Major snowstorms this winter in New York
  • Recent threats on Jewish community centers
  • A recent series of earthquakes in southwestern Puerto Rico
  • A mass shooting in Germany, Jan. 24
  • Jersey City’s active shooter situation, Dec. 10

“Being able to filter through and analyze social media information is a fundamental skill for every corner of our field – from emergency managers to intelligence to law enforcement,” said Jayson Kratoville, NCSP’s interim director. “Our goal with VOST is to mobilize research and expertise at our University, provide mentorship to students and offer a service to our agency partners.”

“Our VOST is still in its infancy stage,” added Amber Silver, CEHC assistant professor, director of the Crisis Informatics Lab and UAlbany VOST principal investigator. “The activation of these teams to monitor social media is a niche, but emerging field. We are offering our students the tools needed to be successful in this space.”

Follow @UAlbany_VOST on Twitter to learn more about the team.

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About the University at Albany
A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany offers more than
120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.