Twitter as a Tool for Disasters and Emergencies

First, let me start by apologizing for the silence.  I kind of went dark over the weekend for an all-weekend binge to finish a project developing a Facebook app for a very large client.  I’m actually quite pleased with what we were able to accomplish in just a matter of 2 days! (and no sleep, I might add)  When their application goes public I’ll talk more about it – I really like what we did!

Now, back to the topic.  Recently, my Aunt sent out an e-mail to my extended family’s e-mail list on yahoogroups asking about how she could use Twitter in the event of a disaster, or to prepare for disasters.  My Aunt and Uncle are currently in charge of the Welfare program for the entire country of Chile, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

First, I was taken back that my 60+-year old Aunt even knew what Twitter was, but secondly it got me thinking.  Chile has had some of the largest earthquakes in the recorded history of this earth.  It is not quite at the level of the United States in terms of mass-communication methods such as computers and the internet.  I’m sure there are many areas that do not even have internet.

Because of the inability to get high-speed internet access (or even phone lines, in general) out to remote areas, the majority of people in third-world countries communicate via cell phone.  It is simply easier to give someone in the middle of Chile, or Brazil, or Nigeria, or Burma, a cell phone than to run phone lines and broadband lines around to every remote village in the country.  Not only that, but it’s more expensive to do so!

Therefore, I can very much see a strong benefit for these countries to utilize services such as Twitter, that have a strong Mobile, SMS platform, to communicate in the event of an emergency.  I mentioned my Aunt’s desire on Twitter, and got this response from @theotherdrummer via e-mail (Please forgive the LDS terminology.  For the non-LDS, a “Ward” is a local congregation.  A “Stake” is a group of those local congregations.  A Bishop is the leader of a Ward.  In LDS culture, LDS refer to each other as “Brother”, and “Sister”, hence the reference…):

My first thought was that it can be used to notify families/stakes/wards of the status of individuals, to serve as a central hub. For example, set up a Twitter account specifically for the Chile 1st Ward. Should something happen, members of the Ward begin texting their status and location to Twitter: “Brother Martinez, at home, OK.”

The Bishop can use this as a starting point to check on people, and can also be used as a source of info for relatives and friends who might be out of the affected area worrying about their loved ones.

The Stake would also have an account to which the Bishops can pass information to.

I thought this was an excellent example of a way to bring people together in the event of an emergency.  Of course, I’ve been in Hurricanes before.  Having grown up in Houston, TX, and lived in Richmond, VA, I know that when emergencies happen, communication lines generally go down.  In cases like that there are better communication methods such as Ham Radio to consider (I’m KC5PZP in case you were wondering…).  There are still often cases where that isn’t the case, and even those that are able to get through can communicate with the world the status of their situation, and where they are.

Twitter as an Emergency Tracking Tool

After this, as an experiment, I started tracking “earthquake”.  There was recently a 6.0 earthquake near us, out in Wells, NV.  I even felt it in my bed early in the morning, way out in Salt Lake City, UT!  This inspired me to follow the term and see where else in the world people were experiencing earthquakes.

Once I started tracking “earthquake” on Twitter I began to realize this was not at all a rare occurance!  Soon I was seeing big and small earthquakes all around the world, from California, to aftershocks around Wells, NV, to Sumatra and Jakarta, Indonesia.  What was fascinating is that I wasn’t only being notified of the earthquakes, but I was also seeing others’ reactions to the events!  I can only imagine what I’d see if I tracked, “tornado”, or “fire”, or “storm”.  It would take just a simple, “help” from someone for me to get into action and communicate via Twitter to find someone to help them.

Now, imagine a tracker that tracked all these terms, and put them on a map, such as the USGS’s earthquake tracker, and added Twitters to the Earthquake Geological alerts.  Add in Hurricane trackers, weather data, and more, and you’d have quite a useful tool that could be utilized by FEMA for tracking where help is needed on an on-demand basis.  FEMA could actually become the first responders with such a tool!

While communication is often disrupted in such events, Twitter can still serve as a useful resource among those that do still have communication.  What suggestions do you have for emergency management and preparedness using Twitter and similar such services?  Any and all comments I will forward to my Aunt for use in Chile.

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