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U of C researchers study tweets sent during Fort McMurray fire

By Zarif Alibhai, August 2 2017 —

The Fort McMurray wildfires displaced over 80,000 people from their jobs and homes in May 2016. A University of Calgary software engineering PhD student believes that centralized app software could help displaced victims find basic necessities in a similar crisis.

Working alongside researchers at the Schulich School of Engineering, Maleknaz Nayebi developed software to analyze 70,000 tweets sent during the Fort McMurray disaster. These tweets showed that most people fleeing the fire were searching for specific necessities.

“People are looking for different resources, they want to know — where is the next gas station?” Nayebi said. “Where they can find water, shelter, blankets and baby clothes.”

The researchers also found that people fleeing the fire wanted to be informed of which roads were open or closed and where heavy traffic was located. Nayebi believes that crisis situations would be less stressful for those involved if this information was collected in an easily accessible app.

“We would like to enhance the quality of life for the victims by giving them more information,” Nayebi said.

While Nayebi’s team is not developing this app, they hope their research will be used by other developers to produce the tool.

Guenther Ruhe, Nayebi’s supervisor, believes that software engineering students should focus on more than writing code. Ruhe wants his students to think about the big picture and not just develop computer programs.

“We are living in a world where there is almost unlimited access to data and information,” Ruhe said. “My group at U of C is looking at data analytics. We want to find out how software fails and why it fails.”

Nayebi and her team are currently analyzing the British Columbia wildfires in order to further understand the needs of people fleeing crisis situations.

“We want to help the community for the next crisis,” Nayebi said.

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