Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL, File

Could Twitter help Utah track drought conditions?

By Graham Dudley, | Posted - Oct. 11, 2020 at 11:39 a.m.

LOGAN — Despite Sunday's rains, the entire state of Utah remains locked in some degree of drought. But scientists can only monitor drought conditions at established weather stations, leaving some areas with imprecise data.

A new project from Utah State University researchers is aiming to change that using data collected not by scientists, but by everyday citizens.

Sarbajit Mukherjee is a computer science doctoral candidate at Utah State. In 2016, Mukherjee used Twitter data to accurately predict the winner of the presidential primary elections by tracking voter sentiment on Twitter.

The project gained the attention of Utah State climate professor Simon Wang, who wondered if that technology could be used for a new purpose: tracking sentiment about climate conditions.

"We're trying to see if we can use social media to build a drought monitoring tool," Mukherjee said.

"What we do," he explained, "is we gather data from Twitter and we build a 'sentiment analyzer' model that, based on what people tweet, it tells you how much positivity is there in the sentence, and how much negativity is in the sentence."

Each tweet is then assigned a positive or negative score.

Mukherjee and Wang repurposed a phrase often used in a safety and security context: "If you see something, say something." In other words, Utahns can help the project by tweeting when they see signs of drought conditions.

Mukherjee said it would be especially helpful to include #Drought or #UtahDrought in the tweet.

Twitter is not as widely adopted as other social media platforms like Facebook, but Mukherjee said he first tested his model in Colorado to see if he would receive enough feedback for the project to be useful. The Colorado test proved successful, he said; he was able to track real-time positive sentiment on an August day when it rained, which then fell away a few days after the rainfall.

Mukherjee hopes his drought tracker will "fill the gap" left by traditional weather tracking stations and give researchers a better, faster picture of on-the-ground conditions "from people who live on and know the lands well."

"Despite the modern technology allowing us to monitor the climate conditions that are related to drought, there's still not many observational points," Wang said. "We've been thinking that drought is something that we, as humans, can feel, and can observe, too. We have perspective about our land, our farm, our ranch, and also the river flowing by. So why not, if we somehow can find a way to collect these human observations?”

"It doesn't have to be an administrator who sits there and says, 'OK, there is a drought going on,'" Mukherjee said. "It will be coming from the people themselves."

He emphasized that the Utah State team will protect the privacy of users who post about drought. And for Utahns who don't have Twitter or don't want to participate with Twitter, the Utah Climate Center has a feedback page where they can post their observations as well.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of Utah is now experiencing an "extreme" drought and a large portion is in an "exceptional" drought, the monitor's worst category.

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Graham Dudley

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