de.tech.ting

Panic all you want: Freaked-out tweets after earthquakes help scientists

Posted by andreaitis on December 15, 2009

Great headline from Wired.com.   For all of you still grumbling that Twitter is boring, useless drivel, listen up.  Smarty-pants scientists say it ain’t so.

A team of U.S. Geological Survey scientists have developed a web service that combines seismic data about an earthquake with Tweets of surprise and angst from the popular microblogging service’s users.

“Why would such a system work?” asked Paul Earle, a geologist at the USGS, at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting Monday. “Because people like to tweet after an earthquake.”

It turns out that the “Earthquake! Earthquake!” SOS that you tweet, aggregated with thousands of others, provides an excellent indication of the strength and severity of a quake. A little rumbler yields just a small spike, while a strong quake produces a huge spike in Twitter activity, as seen in the graph below.

Freaked-out Twitter messages afer earthquakes

Image by Paul Earle

via Freaked-Out Tweets After Earthquakes Help Scientists | Wired Science | Wired.com

The goal is to improve emergency response time and effectiveness.  The scientists are  integrating Twitter messages into their standard earthquake alerts, layering the tweet trends  on top of their professional tools.  One challenge, though, is that the data is typically “noisy.”

What the scientists gain in breadth is partially canceled out by the lack of control they have over the incoming information. After all, Quake is also a popular videogame and Dairy Queen serves up a “brownie earthquake,” and both are likely to find their way into tweets.

“We’ve been developing filtering techniques that allow us to tell the difference between an actual earthquake and a group of people who just finished playing a videogame and got the munchies,” Earle said.

Noise aside, this is pretty cool.  You can see how it becomes even more valuable when you layer Google Maps and geolocation apps like Foursquare or Gowalla on top of the Twitter data.   And then you can cross-reference Twitter with the Facebook stream to look for consistency and confirmation of trends.   Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey say their service may be most useful in the window between when an earthquake happens and their professional data starts coming in.  That window is  approximately 2 to 20 minutes, enough time for an avalanche of Twitter or Facebook updates.

And speaking of avalanches, if this works for earthquakes it should also be useful for hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis and blizzards.   Is the National Weather Service talking to the U.S. Geological Survey?   Are @usnoaagov and @usgs following one another on Twitter?  Are they Facebook friends?

I’ll send an  SOS to the NOAA so they can tweetup with the USGS ASAP.

UPDATE:

I twittered @usnoaagov and @usgs and got a quick reply:

Our government at work.

Our government at work.

I have to say,  I’m impressed.  Two government agencies working together, engaged with the public, responding to  questions.  I almost can’t wait for the next mega weather event to see how this all works in real time.

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One Response to “Panic all you want: Freaked-out tweets after earthquakes help scientists”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by andreaitis, Tweets Tube. Tweets Tube said: Panic all you want: Freaked-out tweets after earthquakes help scientists http://bit.ly/71ZuTj […]

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