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Keeping THON safe, one tweet at a time

Students monitor Twitter to enhance THON security

As balloons and confetti float down from the rafters of the Bryce Jordan Center and students and visitors celebrate the total funds raised by Penn State’s Dance Marathon (THON), another kind of celebration is underway across the street in Beaver Stadium.

In the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), located in the stadium’s police station, members of Penn State’s emergency management team exchange high-fives and cheer for another successful, safe and secure THON. And, much like the fundraising efforts behind the 46-hour event, Penn State students played an integral role in keeping THON safe for both dancers and visitors.

For the third year in a row, students in the Red Cell Analytics Lab (RCAL) joined emergency management staff in monitoring social media for suspicious activity during THON weekend.

Directed by Col. Jake Graham, a professor of practice in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), RCAL is comprised of Penn State students (mostly IST majors) with a common interest in minimizing risk and enhancing security through technology.

During THON, students use the analytics software Twitter Analytics for Monitoring Extreme Events (TAMEE) — developed by Nicklaus Giacobe, the assistant director of the lab and a lecturer in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) — to analyze tweets for any potential security risks.

TAMEE’s algorithm compiles geotagged (localized) tweets and displays them on one screen in both a live stream and a word cloud grouped by popular phrases and hashtags (some of THON’s top phrases included #FTK and #THON2016).  

quoteI think what it really helps them understand is how they can be a contributing member to the security and protection of their community.”

About an hour before THON starts, RCAL students set up shop in the EOC where they monitor TAMEE in shifts for nearly the entire 46-hour event (fueled by plenty of sodas and snacks). Surrounded by security camera feeds and the THON live stream in the background, RCAL students huddle around tables and monitor their computer screens for any signs of suspicious social media activity.

“The reason we do this is to look for any security vulnerabilities that might be coming up,” said Meghan Graham, student director of the lab. “If someone is making a threat or saying anything suspicious, our analytic tools throw it all on one screen and we can interpret it as we need to.”

For example, if tweets indicate that visitors are trying to sneak into the Bryce Jordan Center, RCAL students can let authorities know to investigate the situation. Or, if a large number of guests are confused about particular event policies or procedures, RCAL students can alert communicators of potential clarity issues.

RCAL students also use TAMEE to view trends in tweeting habits during THON. For instance, around 4 p.m. on Sunday, there's usually a visible spike on TAMEE’s Twitter graph due to floods of tweets about the year’s THON total. Viewing these trends can alert RCAL students of any abnormal spikes that might be a result of an extreme event or a security issue.

In addition to providing real-time feedback, monitoring these trends is also important in the decision-making process around future events.

“We're looking for what we call indicators of warning,” Graham said. “So if one year something does happen, we can look back and say, ‘what were the indicators, or what led up to this that we will now recognize in the future and will warn us if this same trend is happening?’”

This year, RCAL students also used a GoPro and a 360-degree camera to create a virtual walk-through of the Bryce Jordan Center — similar to Google Street View — for Penn State emergency managers to use in future planning.

According to Pamela Soule, University Park’s emergency planning manager, student involvement is a necessary ingredient in the safety and security of THON.

Security Story Image 15-16
Image Credit: Rachel Garman

Students use Google Maps during THON emergency planning.

“I think THON is a really great place to involve the students because it’s a student-run event,” Soule said. “How nice it is to have students helping them improve how they run a student organization. I think that's a much better and more collaborative approach.”

The students’ collaboration with emergency management staff doesn’t just start on the first day of THON — they’re involved in months of planning and preparation before the large-scale event.

During the week before THON, Soule works with students in RCAL as well as the Emergency Management Club to run an evacuation drill involving all THON captains.

“The club members play the role of students or spectators who might be at THON and ask the captains questions during the mock evacuation. For example, ‘I’m a kid who was separated from my family; where do I go?’’’ Soule said. “They also look at how they’re directing people. Are they saying the right things? Are they using the right wording so that they're not increasing somebody's level of anxiety?”

Involving students in such a large drill is unique to Penn State, and Soule believes it communicates the importance of emergency management in the larger community.

“It looks good on their résumé, but I think what it really helps them understand is how they can be a contributing member to the security and protection of their community,” Soule said. “Emergency management is everybody's business — everybody needs to have resilient and sustainable communities and everybody must participate. So this experience helps them understand what their role is and how they can participate.”

For Soule, THON’s overarching theme of collaboration is a lesson she hopes these students will carry with them far beyond their careers at Penn State.

“THON is a great place for all of this to come together and for students to see how one group can’t do it all themselves,” Soule said. “I think it’s really nice for them to go out into the workplace and the community with the knowledge that it takes many individuals to make something work.”

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