Formal aid groups conduct needs assessments in the aftermath of a crisis to determine the affected population’s needs, including the severity of needs and relative priorities of competing demands. Needs might include rescue from immediate harm, emergency shelter, protection from disease, or long-term economic development. They are established from a range of data sources, including interviews and professional observations. Needs expressed by affected populations on social media, on the other hand, are immediate appeals for help expressed in real time. Requests for help on social media offer metadata such as a timestamp and a point of contact, and sometimes, a geographic location, but they can just as easily lack some of the crucial data needed to send help.

Methods to analyze social media for improved situational awareness present challenges. But formal needs assessment methodologies could benefit from the additional timely information. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (UNOCHA) mapped the plethora of humanitarian assessment initiatives in its Assessment and Classification of Emergencies (ACE) project. These include, for example, the SPHERE project and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Emergency Assessment methodology. The final report documents “increasingly strong calls for improved assessment” from the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, the UN Humanitarian Response Review, and the UN Reform Process.

The report also produces the key finding that there is “need for more timely information at the onset of an emergency.” Many existing needs assessment tools fail to distinguish information collected at the early onset of a crisis (the first hours) versus information gathered weeks later. Real-time, timestamped social media data is of clear value in this context. To the extent that such communications are publicly-shared, they are also easily shared between organizational siloes and stages of response. (It is worth noting that this report was published in 2009 after meetings in 2007-2008, so its findings and the deliberations leading to it predate the emergence of mature social media listening crisis platforms).

This report alone outlines only global assessment initiatives, illustrating that there are many ways to gather and measure the needs of an affected population. The report did not attempt to map the many systems developed at the field level, by donors, or early warning and monitoring systems. Given that no one metric or collection process will be perfect, needs assessments should include primary data collected from as many perspectives as are available, especially including social media. The wide range of needs assessment methodologies and variation amongst formal aid actors in their abilities to execute suggest that we take care to integrate social media data across the board, and not merely as a siloed additional method. The challenge may be not to further complicate the plethora of existing needs assessment systems while delivering the aggregate value of social media messages sent by affected populations.

Social media listening could possibly complement the Initial Rapid Assessment (IRA) tool, as one example. This field reporting system was designed to rapidly assess needs qualitatively from a wide range of sources and features a more flexible sampling methodology. The form-based IRA has met resistance from country teams in Kenya, Bangladesh, and Myanmar due to its length.

Another needs assessment initiative well-positioned to benefit from social media data is EmergencyInfo, “a decision support system based on DevInfo database technology.” The system specifically focuses on capturing data and assessing situations within the first 72 hours of an emergency. Lastly, these systems should be properly field-tested as they are integrated into needs assessment toolsets.