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Investigating a world in crisis: novel Coronavirus

Official reports from the CDC and WHO only told part of the story. Using the Media Sonar platform, we used a simple set of queries to quickly identify any newly reported cases as they were discovered. This information helped fill any gaps and delays in official reporting and helped to provide an early warning of new cases in North America.

The novel Coronavirus now represents a global health crisis. Over the past several weeks, we have used the Media Sonar platform to trace events and gather intelligence on the crisis around the world. In an organization, crises disrupt operations, cause financial losses, security breaches, injury, loss of life and reputational damage. They are complex and often unfold quickly. Capturing the radical changes in circumstances and needs is challenging especially when official reports might be unavailable or inadequate for describing the situation “on the ground”. Companies with more than 5,000 employees are more likely to have experienced more than 5 crises – an average of one per year, according to a PWC report. While this type of global crisis occurs rarely, it serves as a use case that helps illustrate the value of open-source data to help manage the various stages of a crisis.

Detecting a Crisis

Detection plays a key role in the early stages of a crisis. If an early warning occurs, you should be able to better respond to many types of crises. This is not always possible. In many cases, you receive no signal that a threat is over the horizon and the most dangerous threats will not be immediately visible. That is why it is important to have detection in place to see what might be happening below the surface. Organizations deal with a diverse range of crises that can sometimes come with a warning. According to PWC, organizations must prepare for these types of likely crises: cybercrime (26%), natural disaster (22%), leadership (17%) or ethical misconduct (16%), including fraud, corruption, and corporate malfeasance.

As the Coronavirus began to spread across China, we used social and news reporting to trace the first cases of the virus elsewhere in the world. Official centralized reporting was not available in real-time and it might be several days before a confirmed case was added to the total count. Official reports from the CDC and WHO only told part of the story. Using the Media Sonar platform, we used a simple set of queries to quickly identify any newly reported cases as they were discovered. This information helped fill any gaps and delays in official reporting and helped to provide an early warning of new cases in North America.

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We were able to trace the virus as it spread from China to other parts of the world. The blue circles represent local news and social media reports. Most of these were later confirmed by official reports in the days and weeks to follow. 

open source intelligence to detect novel coronavirusAssessing a crisis

When a real crisis imposes itself, it becomes necessary to assess all the risks and potential outcomes. The assessment facilitates decision making about what the next steps should be and can also help mitigate compounding the negative impact of a crisis. Social posts, online news, and discussions can play an important role in this stage of a crisis. Online sharing is the new normal.

In the case of a global health crisis, this could not be truer. In mainland China and in particular, the Wuhan province, where the Coronavirus first appeared and is most prevalent, Internet communication has become an important outlet and source of information. With millions of people currently under quarantine, Internet communication is, in this case, the only outlet. Mind you, in China the political and cultural situation does not necessarily promote free speech, nonetheless, they are an important view into the situation and circumstances in the hardest-hit areas. 

With access to swaths of incoming data, we were able to capture specific needs in China and around the world. This information would be even more useful for crisis teams in China. We located specific people requesting help, seeking testing, or trying to locate goods. In assessing the needs on the ground, social data might arguably be the best way in today’s connected world.

Responding to a crisis

In the response phase, eyes will be fixed on the organization and people involved in the crisis. Moving quickly is key to success when responding to a crisis, and it is in this stage of a crisis that an organization’s reputation is most threatened. Organizations will be expected to handle any crisis instantly, effectively, and properly. Again, Internet discussions can provide valuable insights. 

With the Media Sonar platform, we were able to trace sentiment on a number of different topics, though the technology was not required to spot the fear and paranoia as the diseases spread. Still, this provided a useful view of regional views of the virus, China, the WHO, and the CDC. 

Social data is also helpful in executing a response to a crisis. Who specifically needs help? Where does that help need to be delivered? What needs to happen first? Understanding the feelings and needs of individuals throughout the response stage is important, not just to ensure that the situation is resolved quickly, but to ensure that reputation is being managed and to dispel any misinformation.

The case for open-source intelligence in a crisis

The novel Coronavirus is a unique case that provides insight into how crises unfold on the world stage. The visibility and breadth of the disaster provide an example for organizations that face crisis every day. Social data is not intended to provide a roadmap to respond to a crisis, but it can be extremely useful in making business decisions. Whereas in the past organizations might have expected to be able to control and contain a disaster, today’s crises affect stakeholders and individuals outside the organization. This is why open source Internet data including social discussions are being used to detect, assess and respond to crises. Ultimately, perfect handling of a crisis is expected, even though crises are messier and potentially more destructive than ever before.

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