Emergency? Go Looking for the Tweets!

July 6, 2013, By Sanjeev Ramachandran

Many feel that Twitter lacks credibility while considering it as a real-time source. But recent research shows that Twitter could be a useful tool in times of emergencies or disasters.

The research, conducted by the Harvard Medical School, was published in PLOS One Currents, an open access journal as a part of the Public Library of Science.

Considering the case of the recent Boston Marathon bombings, different types of hoaxes and erroneous reports had spread via social network sites, and people pointed fingers at Twitter for these flaws. However, this latest research will really make Twitter fans  happy. Researchers used the public Twitter API and examined the social media messages posted immediately after and around the Boston Marathon bombings, using some specific keywords.


To increase specificity, they reduced the radius of the tweets to 35 miles from the Boston Marathon finish line.

The researchers searched for messages containing the words starting with ‘explos’ or ‘explod’ and bomb. And surprisingly, they found people who were near to the explosions posted messages within 3 minutes via Twitter. Moreover, these tweets identified the location and some specifics  of events.

Twitter messages directly from individuals on the scene were timely and faster than any official source or validated public health alerts. It was also very clear that various news sources broke the bombing news only after social networks  and official sources went to town with alerts. This phenomenon clearly indicates that social media websites can play a major role in recognizing emergency events.

Researchers claim that Twitter and other social networking sites can be used as tool to help the police to track down such accidents. Also, they can also help emergency workers to reach people who need help.

According to the study report, messages from individuals who were witnesses to the bombings or were close to the event can be used to localize and identify events. Moreover, it can be helpful to authorities in decision making and quick response to the event.

The researchers also added that sometimes messages from these social networks can provide false reports that could have negative effects too. But still, crowd-sourced information can provide timely initial recognition of an event and specific clues to events.

It needs to be noted that earlier studies had shown similar conclusions. A researcher in the Boston study claims that after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Twitter had first reported cholera spread in the country, which was almost two weeks before any official sources reported the event.

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