Honing In On Conversation

Honing In On Conversation

People might say things they don’t mean, but why take that chance?

College and university, corporate, and hospital campuses are all understood to be safe environments. Inevitably, they become easy targets for social media abuse resulting in security threats, and open venues that encourage community gathering. Each organization maintains a level of responsibility for the safety and well-being of its members, employees and visitors alike. Social media can, and should, be leveraged as a flexible and transparent tool that can help achieve these goals by allowing the end-users to be aware of what is happening in the community and engaging with the community when necessary. However, the ability to hone in on conversations at specific locations is the key to building awareness amidst a constantly flowing stream of available data.

University campuses face a particularly delicate challenge in that their demographics are exactly the highest producers of social media content. How to sift through the noise for the value can be enhanced with location-based data. Corporate campuses, where employees spend so much of their time, must provide a safe environment so that people can be free to work without constant worry, while other campuses, such as hospitals, have many buildings spread out geographically, which can be difficult to manage when considering the open environment they foster.


Before discussing the ways in which our institutions are proactively working to keep up with the constant stream of social media, it is important to recognize the challenges therein across different types of entities.

Deciphering the threats—be it bullying, security or otherwise—is a difficult and delicate task. People are brazen and they sometimes say things they don’t mean. On the other hand, dismissing legitimate threats as immature behavior is a step that institutions all over the country are hesitant to take. It is vital to know and understand the threats being made, who is making the threat, who is being threatened, how serious is it, and what can we do to stop it. This is much easier said than done as the volume and veracity of the threats compete with our limited resources, time and otherwise.

The amount of Open Source data is vast and growing every day. In order to mitigate risks and engage with the community, analysts need access to the right data. What is the right data? It is the information that is both actionable (or at least leads to actionable intelligence) and verifiable. How do analysts figure out what data meets both criteria? Platforms that pull open-source and location-specific social data allow the end-users to cut through the noise to data that is tied to the location of concern.

Anonymity apps are a unique challenge on two fronts. First, who is responsible for the threatening post? Second, how does a campus mitigate against an unknown? This is a challenge that must be overcome with creative technology solutions.

The viral, fast-paced nature and capabilities of social media make it challenging for authorities to keep up with threats or posts of any kind. Anyone can quickly voice frustration, garner support for a cause, engage the masses and convert from an online presence into a physical one. When it comes to analyzing and mitigating potential and viable threats, the viral nature and speed of the internet is a serious challenge that requires authorities to have the proper tools to meet the test.

The constant emergence of new applications makes it difficult for any authority to be current.


On college and university campuses, meeting these challenges head on requires a multi-prong approach that includes risk mitigation techniques, community engagement and education, and effective tools. As Marc Lovicott, the public information officer at University Wisconsin in Madison, said, “at Wisconsin, social media has been really helpful in solving campus crimes.”

Crimes on university campuses are particularly sensitive due to the population at risk. Likewise, policing on university campuses is also particularly sensitive due to the high level of interaction between the populous and the policing element. Additionally, oncampus police are generally tasked with being more tolerant and open in order to ensure the atmosphere of independence and freedom on college campuses. At first glance, it may seem as though this prevents campus police from doing their jobs well, but the contrary is true. Campus police as implicitly forced to be more creative in effectively ensuring both safety and the civic rights of their constituents: namely, freedom of speech and protest. As such, turning to social media as a tool to both understand the sentiment within the community as well as engage with it, has led to improved campus policing overall.

The “other means” include social media community engagement to reach out to those who may have information about a crime or a threat. Social media has helped campuses identify witnesses and suspects, as well as given campus administrators a head start on potential combustible situations, thus mitigating the threat early on.

Combatting online issues is both a preventative measure against escalation to real violence, as well as an educational opportunity for the community to preach appropriate social media usage. Gary Margolis, manager of the National Center for Campus Public Safety is quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying “It used to take a lot more work to generate a gathering. Now one tweet and you’ve just reached 40 people. Everyone has their own mass communications device in their pocket.”

Margolis’ point is well-taken and can be used to further ensure public safety by leveraging social media to protect and communicate, which is what policing is really about. Policing, particularly campus environments, is meant to serve and protect in a tangible and non-threatening manner. Online issues can be resolved safely by getting out in front of them before they escalate. Early signal to emerging threats online can be detected with available technology, allowing the engagement to begin earlier, and more directly, than ever before. Additionally, those responsible for our safety can, through social media engagement, communicate instructions during ongoing events or threats. This is an effective and mass-audience use for social media to be used for public good, and can also be scaled across campuses and communities with ease.


Large corporations have campuses, as do government institutions. Corporate and campus security, with a particular focus around employee and visitor safety is crucial to the success of the business and culture of the community. If people feel comfortable on-site they have one less thing to worry about, and one more way to be productive members of the community. For those responsible for ensuring this level of safety, being able to understand and know what is going on. Is there a disgruntled former employee on the premises? Was there a fight in the locker room? Is the first step for all those responsible for a community? Securing and communicating with those constituents in order to produce a safe environment can be greatly assisted by appropriately leveraging open-source data around a specific location.

Addressing the challenges around the use of social media is not a onesize- fits-all approach. Depending on the campus size, demographics and location, as well as the type of facility, industry and the surrounding environment of each location, deploying the right strategy for the use of social media effectively is critical. Ensuring corporate executives, staff, assets and intellectual property are best protected is the mission of the security teams and the constant flow of social media data is a real-time information source that cannot be ignored.

Access to location-based data-sources, social media principal among them, gives those tasked with safeguarding our communities a pulse on what is going on around the area of interest. Acknowledging the value of this dataset is but the first step in realizing its communal power. We ask that those responsible for our safety do all that is in their power, within acceptable means, to ensure that we can go to and from in a secure environment. Preventing anyone in this position from doing so would be taking a tool out of their toolbox and thus reducing our level of security. When leveraged responsibly by trained professionals, there are few resources available more powerfully accurate to the mood of the community than opensource location-based social media.


Hospitals have to walk the line between offering an open and welcoming atmosphere, while simultaneously providing a safe and secure environment. The main missions of keeping people safe, property secure and information from getting into the wrong hands are difficult to carry out. Emotions can run high as people are sick, grieving, on the mend and sometimes having their ‘worst days’ with extremely raw emotions. In those circumstances, people often act out in a stressful situation in ways they normally would not. This can lead to violent attacks and assaults by patients and/or their families against hospital staff and security.

Furthermore, hospital campuses are also logistically difficult to manage due to the expansive campuses, open visiting hours, resulting in hundreds of individuals coming and going each day, as well as extremely private information pertaining to patient records. This combination makes the need to listen to the sentiment onsite all the more relevant. Public safety, the safety of those working at hospitals and those visiting them, can be enhanced by simply being aware of the emotional swings on the ground so that the relevant elements can preempt and respond accordingly. Leveraging the open-source data that is available within your own hospital campus is a way for you to be everywhere without actually being there.

What can we do to help? Location-based platforms are uniquely sensitive to campus issues and dynamics because they live within the geography where they are deployed. Local end-users can understand the issues and dynamics that are particular to a campus or community. By focusing on the location of the posts we can hone in on issues campuses are facing at home - everything from active shooters to hazing to online bullying.

It’s hard to know how to get started with the volume of constant flowing social media data being shared today. Here are the top 5 recommendations to get access to actionable social media data and start predicting, analyzing and acting on the real-time information today:

Start with Location: By narrowing the location focus of social media, social data from specific campus locations (buildings, streets, arenas, parking lots, etc.) as well as surrounding areas of campus, provides the most actionable information. First focus locally, then take into consideration national or global trends for the most success.

Real Time: Monitoring content as it’s created improves response time and efficiency. Many campuses have a command center or operations center that listens and analyzes many different data sources 24/7. Social media platforms that deliver real-time content and analytics provide instant intelligence to inform decisions about resource deployment and response strategies.

Automate: Effectively detecting the signals from the noise can be a full-time job without automated alerts to provide the most actionable posts. Alerts can be generated on many platforms based on keyword, user or even an emoji. With these alerts, officials can more effectively respond to social media activity and mitigate risk.

Analyze: Mining archived data to identify keyword trends, time-based activity, influential posters, activity trends, social media sources and more enhances realtime and future responses for the most effective strategies. In addition to historic data analysis, applying date, time, keyword, username and network filters allows for quick access to the most relevant content in real time.

Go Mobile: Mobile applications of social media intelligence platforms enhance the information sharing between departments and greatly improve situational awareness for teams on the go. Information can be sent directly to mobile devices of team members in the field, ensuring faster and more effective responses.

All campuses, university, corporate and hospitals alike would benefit from listening to and engaging with their constituents. Enhanced safety, without being overbearing, can be achieved by getting out in front of emerging issues in your geographic area of concern. Those responsible for ensuring safety must take steps to keep up, and using tools that bring to you the relevant data, that filters out the irrelevant, allows you to uncover patterns and trends and connect the dots with location-based social data is the first step to take in today’s fast-paced environment.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Security Today.

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