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Using Twitter during hurricanes (or other crises)

By September 12, 2008current affairs, web-tech

During Hurricane Gustav I used a web-service called Twitter to keep up with what was going on around me. And people I know used it to keep up with what was happening with me. Before Gustav I didn’t care much for Twitter. Now I get it, at least as a way of gathering information during a crisis.

Here’s the deal. Cellphones don’t work well during a widespread crisis because the networks quickly get overwhelmed and can’t handle the call volume. But text messages are limited to 140 characters so they sneak through the gridlock. Any cellphone can send or receive a text message, but there are still a lot of people who don’t know how to use text messaging. Hurricane Katrina taught people in New Orleans, so during Gustav everyone knew what to do.

Now that Hurricane Ike is barreling down on Texas I suspect that people there will learn how to text message a little better. But simple text messaging is still too inefficient. That’s where Twitter comes in.

If you want to use Twitter to broadcast you have to register (it’s free) and get an identity on Twitter. Go to Twitter.com and do this if you want to follow along with the real deal. Once you have an identity and you’re logged in then you can post ‘tweets’ (the hip term for a Twitter message) that get blasted to a specific location. That location would be Twitter.com/[YOUR IDENTITY]. My identity on Twitter is ‘ernieattorney’ so if you want to read my tweets you would go to twitter.com/ernieattorney

Reading only my tweets would be kind of useless during a hurricane like Gustav (and completely useless when there is nothing special happening). But if you knew about other twitterers like @yatpundit or @nolanotes then you’d be able to follow a group of people and get a better overall sense of what’s going on. By the way, the reason I put the @ symbol there is because in a tweet (i.e. twitter message) if you see that symbol then you know you are looking at a person with a Twitter identity. And if you click on, say, @yatpundit then it would take you to YatPundit’s twitter page. (it won’t work here on this page, only on the Twitter page).

The reason I mention YatPundit and Nolanotes is that those were two people that I found to be very insightful and witty, qualities I look for in people I follow on Twitter. YatPundit was very helpful because he would watch all of the TV stations and keep up with press conferences and then distill the information into nice little twitter messages. It was much less stressful for me to check in with Yatpundit’s twitter stream than to sit by the TV or radio. And, of course, once we lost power sitting by the TV was out of the question. The radio worked (on batteries) but it was too time consuming to fiddle with the dials. YatPundit became my official broadcast station, along with the few other people I followed on Twitter. To follow someone just go to their Twitter page and click on the ‘Follow’ button. When you are following several people their tweets all show up in one place so you can monitor everyone you are following very easily.

Finding people to follow on Twitter can be tricky. If I were in the Houston area, or if I just wanted to know what was going on with people who were dealing with Hurricane Ike, I would use a trick my friend Al Robert taught me: Go to search.twitter.com and put in this term: #ike

You will see that you are directed to a nice page with all kinds of people who are twittering about Hurricane Ike. The # symbol is the key to this. People who want their tweets to show up in the search have to know to put this symbol and the proper keyword into their tweet. Apparently, a lot of people around Houston know about this trick. A spokesperson for Home Depot knows this trick and is using it to provide information about which stores are open near Houston and what supplies they have. Nice.

Hope this helps. We will now resume our regular broadcast schedule.


P.S. If you appreciate these kinds of observations, you might want to read this as well.

3 Comments

  • quang cao says:

    It’s nearly impossible to find experienced people for this subject, however,
    you sound like you know what you’re talking about!

    Thanks

  • Awesome issues here. I’m very glad to see your
    post. Thanks so much and I’m looking ahead to contact you.
    Will you kindly drop me a e-mail?

  • Markus Merz says:

    Nice case study. Two annotations:

    A) SMS a.k.a. text messaging was developed as internal status message. By design it is much more stable than voice communication.

    B) Twitter is nice but a centralized service. A typical single point of failure. There exists an OpenSource software package called Laconica (see identi.ca) which can eg be installed on a server by local communities. Multiple Laconica servers/users can be interconnected.

    Twitter is great for monitoring keywords because of the existing huge userbase. But still if it fails no news at all for nobody.

    For a fast active distribution of notes (#microblogging & #micromessaging) software packages like Laconica are recommended IMHO. You will have less noise and more signal than on Twitter.

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