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Disaster Experts: Twitter is Deadly Serious Stuff

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, March 25 2009

Disaster experts are taking Twitter seriously. Dr. Jeannette Sutton of the University of Colorado at Boulder's National Hazards Center spoke yesterday about the role of the micro-content communications network on a conference call that also featured participants from the Red Cross, FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, and Twitter itself. Sutton discussed preliminary research that she plans to publish this summer, focused on how people used Twitter during the recent Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash spill. What was most noteworthy, said Sutton, was how Twitter hosted conversations about the spill, despite the fact that mainstream press attention was almost entirely absent. "These tools are creating tremendous opportunities that we know are going to lead to safer communities," said Sutton.

How Twitter has been used to spread information during past disasters -- natural and otherwise -- has caught the attention of disaster specialists inside and outside government, from the earthquake in China's Sichuan Province to the Australian brush fires to the plane crash in the Hudson River to the Mumbai attacks. Why Twitter? "Twitter is popular," said Hudson. "When a crisis hits, people use what they are familiar with and what's close at hand. Twitter allows users to rely on pre-existing social relationships, and that's tremendously hard to replicate" by outside aid groups. Disaster experts, said Sutton, are looking to Twitter to boost situational awareness, warning dissemination, recovery coordination -- as well as to spotlight areas where information isn't reaching.

The Mumbai attacks, said Sutton, sparked concerns about falsehoods being spread and amplified through Twitter in a time of crisis. But bad information spreading like wildfire isn't, of course, limited to Twitter: "In the immediate aftermath of disasters, we see myths about what has happened. Looting doesn't happen very often. Panic doesn't happen very often." That said, researchers have found, said Sutton, that both online and off "there's a lack of antisocial behavior in the immediate aftermath of a disaster." In fact, Twitter supports some self-validation. Speaking of post-TVA spill tweets, Sutton reported that "they consistently contained a URL. Almost every post that was information linked to a credible source of information."

Researchers are eager to dive more deeply into how people are organically using Twitter during times of crisis, but it's not a platform particularly conducive to study. Tracking how conversations flow and how information ripples out isn't straightforward, said Sutton. Twitter makes automated data collection difficult, but a company representative offered up that the company is hard at work on tools that will make those connections more trackable. In the works: the ability for two strangers talking about the same thing to find one another, and for citizens to find validated services (the local fire department, for example) based on their locations. As the use of Twitter rises, and both people and organizations grow to depend on it, understanding how long-term conversations are sustained will be key to making sense of the new medium; already, people are using the #coalash hashtag popularized during last spring's TVA spill to talk about, for example, a spill upstream of Washington DC earlier this month. (Related: An interactive map from the Center for Public Integrity on coal ash sites around the United States.)

Her work, said Sutton, might be at the vanguard of academic interest in Twittter, but it won't be the last of it. "Little research has been done on Twitter -- yet. It's coming."

(Photo credit: davipt under a Creative Commons license)