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Can Twitter help aid workers in a disaster?

Steve Garfield

It turns out that using Twitter may be an effective way to track and respond to public emergencies.

Twitter has become a polarizing tool in disaster situations. The speed with which information travels is seen as an asset and problem. Proponents point to the instance of the earthquake across the east coast roughly 18 months ago. People in Boston read tweets about the earthquake in Washington, DC before the rumbles traveled further north. It was not a significant earthquake, but it is an example of how people can act quickly if things were worse.

On the other hand are events like the Newtown shootings and the Boston bombings. Misinformation traveled as quickly as facts making it hard to know what was really happening on the ground.

Twitter was in part responsible for the spread of the false accusation that then-missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi was responsible for the bombings in Boston. A young man who may have committed suicide and was missing instantly turned into a suspect in the court of public opinion. His was discovered a week later in the waters off Providence’s India Point Park.

The limitations of Twitter’s 140 characters coupled with the need to get information out quickly conspires to create problems, said Marcus Messner, a communications professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, to the Independent when commenting about the Tripathi case.

“If you look at Twitter, the news snippets on the events are a lot more advanced than what you’re seeing on websites or even what you’re seeing on the air,” Messner said. “Twitter, especially, has put a lot more pressure on news organization to get it out fast.”

Initial locations of tweets about Boston Marathon bombings.
Initial locations of tweets about Boston Marathon bombings.

While there are powerful stories discussing the limits and benefits of Twitter in an emergency situation, the sides rely heavily on anecdotes and individual cases. A group of researchers from Harvard Medical School wanted to systematically test whether the rush of data on social media sites can help out during an emergency. Their findings were recently published in the PLOS medical journal.

The group looked at the locations of tweets and terms used in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. The terms “explod*”, “explos*” and “bomb*” were tracked and mapped within a 35 mile radius of the Marathon finish line.

Early Tweets that included information about where the person was at the time, or geo-tagged tweets, were within the vicinity of the explosions. The immediate rise in Tweets and the use of the keywords along with the geo-data could help emergency response professionals, say the authors.

“Social media messages directly from individuals on the ground were timely, followed closely by validated public health alerts; messages from news sources followed both of these,” they write.

In a case where first responders are not nearby the early information sent through Twitter can help not only alert medical professionals, but let them know where to go. However the information collected does not placate all concerns, say the authors. They cite the example of how quickly the false report of the White House being under attack spread when the Associated Press Twitter account was hacked.

“While social media data can provide timely insight into events as they unfold, they may also produce false positive reports with negative effects.”

Early information shows that social media tools have the potential to track disease outbreaks. A 2011 article in the medical journal PLOS found that Twitter was an accurate tool for tacking disease levels during the swine flu outbreak. The authors said that public health officials could use Twitter in the future to track how a disease is spreading and even ensure that proper medical supplies and medicines are getting to the people who need it most.

More work can be done to optimize the use of Twitter in an emergency. Much of the optimism depends on creating the right tools to use with Twitter. Tools can be developed to track spikes of key words and match them against locations. In the example of Boston, the use of words and phrases connected to bomb in a finite geographic area may help to verify the veracity of an event and lead to immediate action.

“Approaches to actively survey social media to complement traditional approaches to situation awareness after emergency events should be developed which integrate with existing analysis and alerting infrastructure,” concludes the Boston Marathon bombing study.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]