Use of Twitter as an Emergency Notification Service

Recently, a tweet came across my attention span via CrisisCamp DC organizer @poplifegirl: “Firm suing Twitter for allowing govt agencies to use site as an emergency notification system (Credit also @twtrgov).

This is ridiculous.

Apparently, a company holds a patent on emergency notification services through social-media-like networking.  That’s all I can decipher from this article.

And it’s besides the point.

No government agency should be using Twitter as an emergency notification service.  That would be irresponsible.  Outside of the increasingly frequent denial of service attacks (see Washington Post or NY Times articles on the most recent incident), scheduled periods of downtime for maintenance (see Twitter Status Page or the Twitter Blog for details), or the infamous Twitter Fail Whale that appears when the system is generally overtaxed (which not so coincidentally often occurs exactly when an incident or disaster that gathers national and international attention takes place).  And let’s not forget that Twitter is just now implementing a system to validate the identities of Twitter accounts in order to separate “official” Twitter accounts from those set up by individuals with no right to represent the organization from which they are apparently tweeting.

The bottom line is this: Twitter is not reliable enough for any government agency to use as an “emergency notification service” (or for an individual to use the sole means to be notified).  Those government agencies who choose to tweet emergency event information should only be doing so in addition to a formal alert & warning system that they control the infrastructure for – or is under the control of a commercial company who has been contracted to provide such services with a guaranteed service level agreement in place.

Many jurisdictions now use reverse callout systems to telephone all residents in a given geographic area of an event in their neighborhood.  Others use e-mail or SMS distribution lists to notify people.  NotifyNYC is a good example of such a program.  Others also post updates with attached RSS feeds to their websites.  All of these options use infrastructure that they control or are under the control of a vendor with whom they have a contracted service level agreement that will ensure that the system operates when it needs to.

Government agencies who use Twitter do so as a valuable public service, but not in replacement for having an emergency notification system in place.  Using Twitter is one way of increasing transparency in government, especially with the web 2.0 crowd that is constantly innovating the use of technology for everything but increasingly in the field of emergency management.

Twitter is increasingly seen not as a tool for emergency notification, but as a newservice.  See articles on Twitter’s role in a last year’s Southern California earthquake from PBS, and the Los Angeles Times articles “SoCal earthquake has everyone a-Twitter” and “Twitter sees earth-shaking activity during SoCal quake“.

And while Twitter has proven extremely effective at spreading news of breaking events, and is sometimes ahead of the news curve, sometimes the lack of expertise can lead to sensationalism…. often relating to earthquakes… and tsunami threats…. just last night – a M 6.7 quake hit Japan…. getting many excited including some of my favorite Twitter-based news sources…. but it was 50+ km (30+miles) deep – and at that depth – I doubt anyone even felt it.  On Monday, a M7.6 quake near the Andaman Islands spread fears of another Indian Ocean tsunami, accelerated by the fact that NOAA’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a watch for the event.  Panic ensued even though a careful reading of the warning noted the arrival times (which had since passed) and that there was no observed or measured evidence of a tsunami being generated.  (And do note that a tsunami is any wave generated by a quake – even one 2″ above normal).

Participating in the live reporting and re-tweeting of event information does not make the social network expert in emergency and disaster management.  That is why knowing and understanding your sources is so important in a disaster environment.

I love Twitter.  I love that many government agencies at the federal, state and local level push out emergency information – whether for public information (education) or for alerting purposes – through Twitter.  It makes it easier for me to monitor events.  But it’s not the system I rely on for emergency notifications and it should not be for any government agency as well.

I’ll get off of my soapbox now.

I hear there’s lots of activity in the Atlantic.  Time to be Living Prepared again for the Atlantic Hurricane Season.


Help Refugees in Kenya to Live Prepared

And now, for a public service announcement: I received the below appeal today from the Nothing But Nets charity, which supplies mosquito nets to Africa through the United Nations Foundation as part of the global fight against malaria. As we all do, I ignore most appeals that hit my inbox or my mailbox, and there is nothing wrong with that.  I normally make planned rather than spontaneous contributions to charities.

But having worked for UNHCR and UNICEF in Kenya, and having visited the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, this appeal spoke to me more personally. Nothing But Nets is one of the few international charities that I regularly contribute to, as I’m afraid that my time working for such esteemed organizations has left me a little cynical. But this is a great charity and a really cost-effective contribution – mosquito nets do indeed save lives.

I’ve spent a lot of time in malarial-endemic countries, gulped many a dose of doxycycline and methloquine, doused myself in gallons of DEET, worn long-sleeves, long-pants, and socks through 140 degree days and nights, and drank many a gin-and-tonic.  And I would never ever think of falling asleep unless it was under a mosquito net.  It’s actually baffling to me that anyone would do so, but many have no choice.  That’s just a fact.  And I knew that I was always a decent hospital and dose of fansidar away from getting rid of malaria if I did contract it.  The refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, and other countries at the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps do not have these options.  But for $10, you can give a refugee child a mosquito net, and might just save his or her life.

The great writer Stephen King recently wrote in his New Year’s essay for Entertainment Weekly that he planned to give this year – dollar for dollar – to charity – what he spends on movies and music.  Here’s an outtake (You can read the whole article on EW’s website):

Last, I wish that every appreciator of the American pop cult — and I count myself very much in that number — will remember that books, music, movies, and videogames are important…but not all-important. There are millions of people in the world who are more concerned with getting their hands on enough to eat than they are with whether or not they’ll be able to score a new-generation Kindle or Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for their Nintendo. I know that all the fight-hunger, work-for-peace Bono blah-blah can get a little old, but none of the bad stuff is going away soon. So in 2009, I’m going to contribute a buck to some useful charity like Save the Children or Physicians for Social Responsibility for every one I spend on movies, DVDs, or iTunes downloads.

I thought that this was a great pledge for anyone to make and I’m sure the King of Pop would agree that not dying of malaria is a worthy cause as well, so I am conscious-clear quoting him on this.  (And for the record, I agree that Save the Children and Physicians for Social Responsibility are perfectly deserving charities).

The following is the appeal from Nothing But Nets:

Dear Friend,

nbn_kenya_email_imageAs you know, we’ve been working with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) over the last few months to send bed nets to African refugees to protect this vulnerable population from malaria. You may have even sent a net and saved a life yourself.

In just two days I’ll be in Dadaab, a Kenyan refugee camp with one of the highest rates of malaria deaths. With the rainy season is fast approaching and we are still a few nets short of ensuring all 273,000 refugees in Kenya are covered.

Will you help us cover every refugee in Kenya by making a donation today?

Be sure to visit for more information on our efforts in Kenya and how your donations can save the lives of refugees.

I will be sure to send photos and stories from my trip – thank you!

Adrianna Logalbo
Deputy Director, Nothing But Nets

Anyway, while this admittedly has nothing to do with your own personal disaster preparedness, if you take a very long-term return on investment perspective, you could think of this more of as a “Pay It Forward” or “What Goes Around, Comes Around” moment on Living Prepared.  By contributing to this effort, for the average cost of a iTunes album download, you can help someone in Africa to live prepared.

Thanks for your consideration.