Using Twitter in Emergencies

Posted by CorinneRamey on Feb 21, 2008

Twitter might tell you what the friend of a friend ate for breakfast or when your cousin is doing his laundry. But, charges Nate Ritter, Twitter is way more than a social networking tool used to communicate the mundane details of everyday life. The mobile phone service has potential -- and in fact, has been used in the past -- for emergency communication and response.

Nate Ritter, a freelance consultant for small businesses and nonprofits and self-proclaimed Twitter fanatic, discussed the possibilities of Twitter with MobileActive. Most of his personal experience with Twitter usage in emergencies, he said, came from using the service during the Southern California wildfires in the United States during October of 2007. "The city had fires on three out of four sides," he said, talking about San Diego, a city in California. "They endangered all power grid lines, and three out of four were down, so we had to get power from Tijuana." He said that Twitter -- which was used by the Los Angeles Fire Department, the San Diego Fire Department, local public radio station KPBS, and even the Red Cross -- was an essential means of communication throughout the fires. "Cell towers and communication lines were being burnt," he said. "SMS and websites were the best ways to get info, and Twitter was perfect in that sense because it published directly to SMS."

Twitter, said Nate, was especially helpful for directing people to shelters, letting them know about road closings and dispersing other logistical information. Nate used his own Twitter feed to circulate information to people as well; you can read about his experiences here on his blog. "We were able to help mobilize people," he said. "We would tell them what roads were closing and where the fires were at and where to go. Even if they didn't have to evacuate people were getting information of where to send food and blankets and stuff." He gave one example of a retirement community that was forced to evacuate and sent to a junior high school. Nate said that after he sent out a request for help via Twitter, "350 people got the message and brought blankets and food. We actually had to tell people to stop helping."

Twitter, a micro-blogging and social networking service which allows users to send frequent updates of 140 characters or less, was launched by San Fransisco based start-up Obvious in March of 2006 and eventually became its own company, Twitter, Inc. The service has short codes for the US, Canada, and India, and a UK number that can be used internationally. In addition to being used in the Southern California fires, Twitter was reportedly -- and for the most part informally -- used during the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the Mexico City earthquake, and a college shooting.

But for all its advantages, Twitter has its problems. The system only allows updates about once every minute. "One of the difficulties with Twitter right now is they have a limitation on their API. You can only update once every minute, and from an emergency response situation that's a little too slow. If you had multiple people on one account you're going to very easily surpass that." The system also fails often when overloaded with 'tweet' messages.

Another problem with Twitter is that only a small number of people use the application, so information via Twitter has limited impact. "I had 350 people, KPBS had 1000, and the fire department had a couple of 100 who followed our messages. But in the scope of San Diego, which has three million people, that's not that much." Although Twitter was certainly helpful for the small number of users that accessed it, and was useful for internal communications within organizations like the Fire Department, the majority of the population is not getting information from Twitter.

Twitter is used in the US and Japan, primarily, but there are many other twitter-clones in other countries for which some of the same considerations apply.

Despite Twitter's problems, Nate sees possibilities for the future, especially using Twitter in combination with other applications. "You could aggregate all kinds of media to have a citizen media site useful in emergencies" he said.

An organization called InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases, and Disasters) has already begun to work to integrate Twitter into other applications such as Facebook and Google Maps. For example, an application called Contacts Nearby uses Twitter to contact a network of aid workers. Because SMS can work when there is even intermittent telecommunicatons service available, the application allows an aid worker to send information to a larger network via Twitter, and registers a worker's location using Google Maps. According to the InSTEDD website,

Imagine being on site at an emergency situation. You might have the best aid workers or medical staff within a hand's reach. The Contacts Nearby application lets you see if you have contacts in common and allows you to ask for referrals from mutual contacts. This information can accelerate finding useful contacts in your area and building trust with them.

The INSTEDD project is funded by, the Rockefeller Foundation, among others.

Photo credit to Martin LaBar.

Follow up: Twitter being used to find missing children

Just as a follow up, I recently also created a new Missing Children Twitter account which posts within 1 minute of getting alerts regarding missing children around the US. I posted the details about this missing children twitter feed to my blog and will soon post another article including downloadable code which can be used to create similar useful services. Just another example of Twitter being useful in emergency situations.

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