Then: Local Hoops Legend, Reserve Forward, 2002
Now: Graduate Student, University of Colorado at Boulder
Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | February 5, 2010
Kate Starbird is one of the greatest basketball talents ever to come out of the Seattle area. The Lakes High product was Naismith College Player of the Year as a senior, starred for the ABL's Seattle Reign and spent a memorable stint with the Storm, helping lead the team to its first playoff appearance in 2002 after a midseason trade, as part of her five-year WNBA career.
As great a player as Starbird was, her life was never defined solely by basketball. A computer science major at Stanford, she is now putting those skills to use as a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder working on using social media and especially Twitter to aid in crisis response. The timeline of what is known as Project EPIC was accelerated by last month's devastating earthquake in Haiti, as Starbird and her co-collaborators seek to use their "Tweak the Tweet" methodology to help those in need.
As Starbird's playing career was winding down, she knew she wanted to continue her education in graduate school. She last played in the WNBA with the Indiana Fever in 2004, playing overseas in Spain for two more seasons. Colorado's ATLAS (Alliance for Technology, Learning and Society) program appealed to her desire to combine her experience with computers with application in the social sciences, specifically in the rapidly expanding field of social media.
"When I came to the ATLAS program and the University of Colorado, I did not have a Facebook account. I don't think Twitter even existed, or at least I had never seen it," Starbird said by phone. "That's the really cool thing about being in this particular space. It's taking off right now. There's so many things to study, so many research opportunities. In general, what we were studying is technology, media and society - how technology affects society. This social media thing happening at the same time, it's all coming together."
That's certainly true of the research into the use of social media during crisis situations, which began last winter as a case study based on the March 2009 flood of the Red River in North Dakota.
"In combination with collaboration with my advisor Leysia Palen and two other graduate students here, we started studying the Red River floods on Twitter, and we collected 30,000 different tweets that we read and we classified," explained Starbird. "We read all these tweets and we tried to figure out how people, many of them local, were using Twitter during the Red River flood to coordinate, to communicate their needs, to make sense of what was going on, to plan sandbagging efforts. We did this very intense research and we also ended up studying the Oklahoma grass fires and how Twitter was used by people during that event. Since that, every time there's been an event, we've picked up data and looked at that."
With the help of a funding grant from the National Science Foundation, Project EPIC (Empowering People in Crisis) turned its attention to how the information provided by Twitter could be more easily collected. Here, Starbird's background in computer science proved useful in the development of software tools as well as understanding what programs could and could not take from messages on Twitter, or tweets.
A key breakthrough came at last November's Random Hacks of Kindness conference. Starbird and Jeannie Stamberger combined to create a form of syntax, built on Twitter's hashtag capabilities, called "Tweak the Tweet" that makes information provided by individuals on Twitter more usable to those trying to help. The idea was well received and was named runner-up in the Random Hacks of Kindness competition.
Initially, the plan was to develop "Tweak the Tweet" over time, but the urgency of the situation in Haiti spurred immediate action.
"When the Haiti earthquake happened, for a few days, we talked about not really doing anything except collecting data," Starbird said. "It's really hard to work in our space because we know we're supposed to go out there and start studying things. At the same time, it's hard for everyone to see the devastation that was happening there. Then we realized, we have this idea, we think it may be able to help it may not be able to help today, but in two or three weeks it may be able to help coordinate relief efforts.
"We started pumping messages out on our Twitter account directing people to our Web page that would show them how to use this synxtax. We started putting example tweets out there where we took real information and we translated it into the syntax and sent that out there. We did some local press releases to try to disperse the information and the syntax and have people see it. The more people see it and the more people who use it, the more useful it becomes."
Because of the importance of end users being aware of the syntax and the limitations of technology in Haiti, Starbird isn't sure that she and her peers are having an impact on Haiti relief. The learning process and exposure, however, both figure to be valuable down the road.
"It's hard to think about this as a person in the disaster space," said Starbird, "but it will probably be useful in the next event. We hate to think about the next event, but there always is a next event. We see this as really valuable for people in future events and in this one we're trying as hard as we can to help whomever we can with it. If we get one message and push it to the right person and got the word out there and it got there faster because they saw our message travel around, it's worth it for us."
Being part of the aid process is certainly a motivating factor for Starbird, but during the process itself it is hard not to get caught up in the overwhelming nature of the need.
"As an academic researcher, it's rare that you get to see your research so quickly," she said. "That, it's rewarding but it's also been extremely emotional and stressful because these are people's lives. You're positioning yourself as a player in helping or maybe not. It's very nerve-wracking in this particular instance. It's been so painful and hard for all of us - not just researchers; everyone who's tuned in to that event has been emotionally touched by it. For us, it's been pretty intense, because we've been watching these requests go out for very specific things and it's hard. I think it will be rewarding down the line. Right now, it's very emotional."
While Starbird has left her playing days behind her, she still draws upon lessons from her basketball experience in her new role."There's three things that I really lean on a lot from my basketball career that have been vital for my academic career so far," she said. "One of them is teamwork. I work in a lab with three active other graduate students, but there's a lot more peripherally involved. We've got two professors and we're all working together. We know how to pick up where the other one lets off, we know how to spread credit and pick each other up when someone needs it. For me, having a teamwork background has been really important for working in such a collaborative research lab. It's something I enjoy. I was working sort of by myself on my own project for a while, and it definitely wasn't as rewarding for me as working in a team environment.
"The other aspect that really has been helping me is the leadership and the public speaking we would do as basketball players. I used to be insanely shy, and all that aversion therapy of having to speak in front of people, give talks, talk to reporters was so valuable - especially the last few weeks when I've had to be on conference calls with people in high places talking about coordinating things and I've got to go up there and say what we're doing. I feel a lot of confidence in that, and I know I would not be that confident had I not been a basketball player.
"The third thing is just discipline. Academic research takes a lot of self-discipline. There's nobody sitting over there telling you you've got to do it. You have to put your time in, the same as especially being a professional athlete in the WNBA when you have eight or nine months off and you have to be self-disciplined and take yourself to the gym. That's really helped me."
With her work so far, Starbird is on the way to establishing a legacy off the court every bit as impressive as what she accomplished as a basketball player.