Earthquakes are something to tweet about

USGS's Twitter Earthquake Detector helps monitor quakes in real time

Agency: U.S. Geological Survey

Project: Twitter Earthquake Detector

Technology: Twitter 

Social media has a variety of uses that appeal to the federal government, and one such area is disaster response and management. The U.S. Geological Survey is developing a prototype site that monitors Twitter feeds to provide scientists with real-time data about earthquakes.

Paul Earle, director of operations at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo., said the goal behind the Twitter Earthquake Detector (TED) effort, launched last year, is to demonstrate a way to rapidly detect earthquakes and provide an initial damage assessment.

TED taps into the Twitter API and searches for keywords such as “earthquake.” It then pulls and aggregates the information, including photographs, providing USGS scientists with a map based on the number of tweets coming from a geographic area. That information is useful because there is a time lag between an earthquake and its official verification. The Twitter data can fill that gap, Earle said.


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The project was inspired by several earthquakes, notably a May 2008 quake in California. Earle cited commentary that Twitter reports about the incident spread faster than USGS alerts. He cautioned that although Twitter is useful in detecting and providing an initial assessment of an earthquake, it does not provide scientifically precise data. However, Earle said, he saw the potential for using Twitter data to complement earthquake measurements.

Interior Twitter map

Although there is no timetable to launch the new site, Earle said he wants to see TED operating and integrated into disaster response efforts within the next six months.

The Twitter site represents an evolution of USGS’ efforts to distribute data. He said alerts are still sent via facsimile and e-mail messages. Social media sites also provide real-time information, usually within seconds of an incident. Earle said such short-term information is qualitative, but it can provide scientists with additional information about an earthquake.

Earle said Twitter can be a potentially useful tool for scientists. It is also an inexpensive tool. He noted that the cost of developing the site is considerably less than the cost of a modern seismometer.

People can receive earthquake data from the @USGSTED Twitter account. The site sends maps of earthquake zones to account holders.

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Reader comments

Mon, Jul 19, 2010 curious Florida

Is this an indication the idea of first responders using laptops and/or cellphones during such emergency situations is no longer being pursued or does this simply identify a competitor for communication capability at a time when that capability will likely be limited and stretched to (if not beyond) its capacity? Where is the avoidance of duplication of effort?

Fri, Jul 16, 2010 Steve Lunceford

Of related interest, @USGSted is/was Twitter's first case study on how government agencies are using the network: http://bit.ly/cIBr0H

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