Purdue researchers develop software to make big events safer

Fans visiting Ross Ade Stadium this season to watch the Boilermakers play football should be a little safer thanks to software developed by Purdue University researchers.

The platform, Social Media Analytics and Reporting Toolkit, is designed to track social media posts and use that information to alert emergency responders and event organizers of problems or potential problems within a specified geographical area.

While the software is being rolled out for the Purdue football season, the developers think it could have broader uses with far-reaching impacts.

“This is a giant leap for social media analytics tools,” said David Ebert, director of Purdue’s Visual Analytics for Command, Control and Interoperability Environments Center and a professor of electrical and computer engineering, in written comments. “Police departments and first responders can use the social media posts to reach people in need of assistance, including medical emergencies, disaster emergencies or criminal activity. During the start of football season, it can be used to find fans having heat-related medical issues.”

The platform, which was developed by Ebert and a team of graduate students with input from organizations such as the Purdue Police Department and the U.S. Coast Guard, also has applications for monitoring traffic, finding hurricane victims, analyzing school threats and helping with security at major speeches or visits by VIPs. The development of the platform was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“We use the technology during special events to build word clouds based on the type of event,” explained John Cox, Purdue’s police chief, in written remarks. “We use it during dignitary protection details where there could be a threat of violence or there is a history surrounding the subject of the dignitary’s visit.”

On game day, Purdue police can monitor the browser-based platform to see filtered social media content related to key words and geographic regions. 

The software allows first responders to select key words and themes, such as various types of medical incidents or crimes, which are then visually displayed and highlighted on a map as they are talked about on social media within a specific geographic area.

“Users have told us our technology is easy to use and allows them to clearly see and monitor what is going on within a specific area,” Ebert said. “Practically everyone is on social media these days, so there is a rich amount of data available.”    

Purdue’s technology also allows users to set up customizable email alerts for relevant key words within a specified time frame.

The Purdue team worked with the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization to patent its work. The team recently licensed the technology to Davista Technologies, which is based at Purdue Research Park. Ebert said a more robust commercial version of the software will be available in the summer of 2019.

The commercial version, Ebert told IBJ, will allow more sources of information to feed into the platform and allow more users—potentially hundreds of thousands—to use the software simultaneously.

Because of the platform’s flexibility and the broad—and growing—use of social media, Ebert thinks the Social Media Analytics and Reporting Toolkit could have a wide range of uses in numerous settings.

“We think it could have applications for media and marketing as well as safety and security,” Ebert said. “This certainly has the capability to track where products are being distributed and how they are being used.”

The pricing is still being worked out for the commercial version, but Ebert said the platform can be used for a single day for as little as $10. Yearly subscriptions, depending on the number of users and features, will cost $5,000 to $10,000, Ebert said.

Officials from Purdue and Davista have secured funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to make the commercial platform available to first responders nationwide.

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