Sara Mynott

GeoTalk: Matthew Agius on how online communication can help identify earthquake impact

In this edition of GeoTalk, we’re talking to Matthew Agius, a seismologist from the University of Malta and the Young Scientist Representative for the EGU’s Seismology Division. Matthew gave an enlightening talk during the EGU General Assembly on how communication on online platforms such as Facebook can help scientists assess the effect of earthquakes. Here he shares his findings and what wonders online data can reveal…

Before we get going, can you tell us a little about you’re area of research and what got you interested in using online communications to complement our understanding of earthquakes and their impact?

My area of research is the study of tectonic structures and dynamics using different seismic techniques. The regions I have studied the most are Tibet and the Central Mediterranean. During my student days many friends wondered about my research and I felt that there was a need to reach out for the public in order to eliminate misconceptions on how the Earth works, in particular about the seismic activity close to home – Malta. This led to the creation of a website with daily updates on the seismic activity in the Mediterranean. We set up an online questionnaire for people to report earthquake-related shaking. The questionnaire proved to be successful; hundreds of entries have been submitted following a number of earthquakes. This large dataset has valuable information because it gives an insight on the demographics in relation to earthquake hazard of the tiny nation.

How can social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter be used to assess the impact of earthquakes?

Nowadays the general public has access to smart phones connected to the internet, which have become readily available and affordable. This resulted in a rapid use of social websites. People increasingly tend to express themselves in ‘near’ real-time online. Furthermore, smartphones are equipped with various technologies such as a GPS receiver and an accelerometer – the basic set up of a seismic station – and also a camera. Altogether this has the potential to provide an unprecedented level of information about the local experience of an earthquake. Its immediate analysis can also supplement instrument-based estimates of early earthquake location and magnitude.

Out in the field – Matthew Aguis in the Grand Canyon. (Credit: Matthew Aguis)

Out in the field – Matthew Agius in the Grand Canyon. (Credit: Matthew Agius)

What sort of information can you gather from sites like Facebook or Twitter, and what can it tell you?

Users can post comments as well as photographs directly on a page, say a page dedicated to earthquakes. Such post are time stamped and can also have geolocation information. Although the posted information might seem too basic, the collective data from many users can be used to establish the local feeling in ‘real time’. Another way is to have a specific application that analyses the text expressed by social media users. Similar applications have already been considered in a number of regions such as USA and Italy, and have shown very interesting social sentiment expressed during and after an earthquake shake.

How do the earthquake sentiments relate to the geology? Can you see any patterns between what people say and share online and the intensity of the quake in a particular area?

This is a new area of research that is still being investigated. Earthquake intensity, shaking and damage in a local context, are known to vary from one place to another. These variations are primarily due to either the underlying geology, the seismic wave propagation complexities, or a combination of both. So far various mathematical models have been published for famous areas such as San Francisco Bay; soon scientists will have the opportunity to compare their models with information on people’s sentiment gathered in this new way. Such sentiment is expected to relate to the geology, to some extent.

And another shot of Matthew in the field – this time from Mount Etna. (Credit: Matthew Aguis)

And another shot of Matthew in the field – this time from Mount Etna. (Credit: Matthew Agius)

What are the difficulties of dealing with this sort of data, and how do you overcome them?

This type of data compilation is known as crowdsourcing. Although it is has powerful leads, one has to take careful measures on how to interpret the data. For example one must not assume that everyone has a public social profile on the internet where to posts his/her sentiment. One also has to consider that mobile phone coverage is sometimes limited to cities leaving out large, less inhabited areas without a network. Another limitation can be related to the list of specific keywords used during text analysis, a typical keyword could be ‘shake’; users might be using this term in a completely different context instead of when the ground is shaking! I think the best way to overcome such difficulties is to combine this data with current seismic monitoring systems; upon which an event is verified with the seismic data from across the investigated region.

During your talk you proposed other ideas for data analysis, how can it be used to support civil protection services and inform the public?

Until now social sentiment with regards to earthquakes has been studied through the use of Twitter or Facebook. But citizens are also making use of other online platforms such as news portals. All this information should ideally be retrieved and analysed in order to understand the earthquake sentiment of an area better. Furthermore, such studies must also be able to gather the sentiment in multiple languages and establish geolocation information from clues in the user’s text. I think it is time to implement a system to be used by civil protection services, whereby immediately after an earthquake has been established, an automatic alert is sent via a dedicated phone app and, at the same time, a web bot crawls the web to ‘read’ and analyse what people are expressing across multiple platforms. A felt map can then be generated in real time. This could be very useful for  civil protection services during a major disaster, helping them to redirect their salvage efforts as civilian phone calls become clogged.

Matthew also mans Seismoblog, a blog dedicated to the young seismologists of the European Geosciences Union – keep up with the latest seismology news and research on Seismoblog here.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Beneath a star-studded sky

Marco Matteucci captured this image of the night sky on the slopes of Mount Rosa, the second tallest peak in Alps. Mount Rosa straddles the border between southern Switzerland and Italy the pink mountain’s name comes from the Franco-Provençal word rouése, meaning glacier. Much off the Swiss side of the mountain is enveloped in the ice of Gorner Glacier, the second largest glacier in the Alps. On the Italian side, lies Belvedere Glacier, which is fed by the snow that falls on Mount Rosa.

Mount Rosa ridge, Valle d'Aosta, Italy. (Credit: Marco Matteucci via

Mount Rosa ridge, Valle d’Aosta, Italy. (Credit: Marco Matteucci via

Wish you could capture images like this yourself? You can! Take a look at this brief guide to space photography for some hints and tips. 

Imaggeo is the EGU’s open access geosciences image repository. Photos uploaded to Imaggeo can be used by scientists, the press and the public provided the original author is credited. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. You can submit your photos here.

GeoEd: Working together

When a geoscientist steps into a classroom, set to share their wonders of the Earth with a host of eager young minds, they are heading straight into unknown waters. Which students will rock the boat? What works well for this class and what should you steer well clear of? Not knowing the answers can turn a terrific outreach activity into a sinking ship. Fortunately, there’s a navigator on board. Sam Illingworth shows the importance of working together with teachers to avoid rough waters and make your outreach activity a success…

Albert Einstein once said, “A foolish faith in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” Einstein was talking about a reluctance to accept the authority of another person’s, scientific or religious dogma, without first rationally testing that person’s claims, but he might just as well have been talking about scientists who participate in outreach activities without attempting to involve a teacher.

Scientists are good at science, that after all is what we are paid to do, and for the scientists that engage with school children and the general public many of them are also good communicators. Some of the scientists might even have teaching experience, but in the vast majority of cases they are not teachers, and to assume that they do not need the help and assistance of the classroom educators is ignorance bordering on arrogance.

As I have written about in previous posts, good outreach activities will build on what the students already know, rather than taking a deficit-model approach to teaching. Building on what the students know involves not only a detailed knowledge of the curriculum, but also an in-depth understanding of the needs and abilities of each of the students in the classroom. This is a lengthy process (here is an excellent blog post about ditching the deficit model from a teacher’s perspective) that cannot be fast-tracked, nor is there a need to do so when the teachers already have all of that information at their fingertips.

Even those scientists that participate in outreach activities, and who have experience of teaching at a pre-university level need to ensure that they actively engage with the teachers in the learning process. After all, whilst they may have experience of teaching in a classroom environment, they will not have experience of teaching in this classroom environment, and will be unfamiliar with the different learning styles and social nuances of the student cohort.

Every classroom is different. (Credit: isafmedia)

Every classroom is different. (Credit: isafmedia)

In developing an outreach activity for school children, I would suggest involving a teacher in the design process as early as possible. Their knowledge of the curriculum and of general learning behaviours within the school environment will ensure that the message you are trying to convey through your outreach activity does not fall on deaf ears. They will also be able to provide constructive feedback as to what they know will and will not work in their own teaching environments.

Once the outreach activity is beyond the design stage and is ready to be unleashed upon its intended audience, I would suggest beta testing it with a teacher (and their class) with whom you are well acquainted. Providing that the teacher knows that this is the initial airing of the activity, they will be able to offer you incredibly useful feedback to improve upon the event for future iterations. Such feedback is also incredibly useful in forming some of the structural basis of the evaluation of your project, which can (and should) be used if writing up the process for peer-review.

Working with teachers during the development phase of an outreach activity is excellent practice. (Credit: Robert Hruzek)

Working with teachers during the development phase of an outreach activity is excellent practice. (Credit: Robert Hruzek)

Once the initial beta testing has been completed, it is good practice to carry out a similar exercise with the teacher of every class that the activity is delivered to. It is wrong to assume that what works for one group of students will work for another, and by sending in a basic précis of the planned outreach to the teacher that you will be working with beforehand, they will be able to give incredibly useful feedback as to what they perceive will and will not work well with their students. This step can be the difference between engaging with the classroom in an effective and genuinely two-way dialogue and talking at a group of disinterested pupils whose minds have long since left the learning environment.

Working with the teacher at the time of delivery is also essential for a successful outreach event. The teacher will be able to assist with basic logistics such as room setup, and will also be able to ensure that the class is grouped (where necessary) to avoid wanton disruption.

Teachers are well placed to split up potential troublemakers, to avoid scenes like this one. (Credit: Carlos Villela)

Teachers are well placed to split up potential troublemakers, to avoid scenes like this one. (Credit: Carlos Villela)

It is sometimes easy to forget that outreach work should also be a learning experience for the scientists that are involved. The knowledge exchange that can be gained from observing the teaching and classroom management style of a good educator are skills that are directly transferable into key facets of research life; from communicating to a variably engaged audience to working with difficult co-workers. As the great American writer J.P. McEvoy put it, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University


Imaggeo on Mondays: Spectacular splatter – the marvels of a mud volcano

Mud volcanoes, unlike many others, do not extrude lava. Instead, they release glutinous bubbling brown slurry of mineral-rich water and sediment. They range in size from several kilometres across, to less than a metre – the little ones are known as mud pots, reflecting their diminutive nature. The world’s largest, though, is Lusi: a mud volcano in East Java that released an astonishing 180,000 cubic metres of fluid each day during the peak of its 2006 eruption. It’s likely to continue erupting for another 26 years!

Much of the gas that bubbles up through these muddy pools is methane, though the exact mix of gasses varies from site to site and is tied to other geological activity in the region, with those close to igneous volcanoes often releasing less methane than those associated with clathrate deposits. Small bubbles of gas can coalesce to form a much larger one, which, on reaching the surface, bursts and sends flecks of clayey fluid asunder, just as they do here:

The sediment-rich spatter from a bubbling mud volcano. (Credit: Tobias Heckmann via

The sediment-rich spatter from a bubbling mud volcano. (Credit: Tobias Heckmann via

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer

Imaggeo is the EGU’s open access geosciences image repository. Photos uploaded to Imaggeo can be used by scientists, the press and the public provided the original author is credited. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. You can submit your photos here.



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