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 http://bit.ly/ilGxX (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.

Twitter Feeds for Emergency Alerts & Preparedness Information

A friend has been bugging me to micro-blog on Twitter for some time now.  I resisted for a while as I find it difficult to keep up with updating my status and activities already on Facebook and LinkedIn.  I finally signed up to better be able to understand Twitter’s use in support of the Sahana Disaster Management Software project, which I am involved with as a member of its Project Management Committee and long-standing contributor.  Yesterday, I was playing around with a couple of plug-ins – twitterfeed pushes my blog posts automatically to my twitter feed (very cool); a Facebook plug-in pulls my twitter status to update my Facebook status (also very cool); and a third and final one – Pidgin-Twitter plug-in – makes my twitter feed readable on my Pidgin instant messaging client (unbelievably cool).  [Follow the instructions here on how to set this up].

Somewhere along the way, I noticed someone else was following ReliefWeb, which is an information service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA).  So I started following the ReliefWeb twitter feed.  After a little research, I realized that a number of official sources of emergency and disaster information push information to their Twitter feeds.  I became obsessed.

I searched for “FEMA” and found a few official feeds.  I searched for “emergency” and found a bunch more.  “Redcross” led to a number of hits – one from the National Red Cross and a ton of local chapters.  Then the floodgates really started to open.  See, a lot of these twitter feeds from government and non-governmental organizations follow other “official” sources of emergency alerts and information.  I am up to a list of over 40 that I am now following – including one from BreakingNewsNY that pushes out up to 500 alerts per day about incidents in New York City – that is monitored by FDNY and other public safety agencies in the City.

Being better informed is absolutely a better way of Living Prepared™.

Integrated into my instant messaging client (Pidgin), I now have a scrolling feed of emergency and disaster preparedness public information notices, as well as emergency alerts and notifications.  It flashes when a new one comes in, and there is an audio alert as well (that can be turned off).  It’s the perfect solution for me as I’ve always struggled to have to check information websites (a pull system); and the e-mail notifications that I get (a push system) clog my e-mail folders (where they are filed automatically by rules).

A desktop applet has always been the solution, but most – whether a google desktop widget or simply adding a web-page to my desktop – I have always found lacking as either they remain in the background and I am unable to quickly view them on top of other applications – or they consume desktop space by occupying a bar perpetually on the right or left or top or bottom of my screen.  All dissatisfying solutions that I’ve done away with after a short while.  An instant messaging client solution is perfect for me.  It provides visual and auditory notification of new alerts and messages, which is useful when I am following a situation closely, but I can also turn down when I need to.

For outgoing updates, I have the following paths to update my twitter feed.  I can post to this blog, and it will update twitter.  I can also update my twitter status through a browser; through sending an instant message from Pidgin (it using gtalk – googletalk protocol/XMPP); through sending an e-mail to a twittermail address; through sending an SMS message from my smartphone; or through the browser on my Smartphone (whose homepage I set to my twitter homepage so I can pick up all my alerts).  I think that is pretty cool.

And by posting to Twitter, I am also updating my Facebook page; and you will also note that you can also view the Living Prepared and Globaliist twitter feeds through the widget on the right of this page.  In coming weeks, this site will be launching a number of feeds to help you be better informed about emergency and disaster preparedness – aggregated from official government and non-governmental sources.

This is the short version of this story; a longer one with step-by-step instructions will follow soon in a longer post, but I wanted to get this out to get you thinking about the possibilities.

Here is something you can help me with – I am looking to compile a list of relevant twitter, blogs and RSS feeds from governmental and non-governmental sources related to disaster preparedness, as well as alerts and warnings issued at actual time of an event (such as tornado warning, earthquake notifications, and hurricane tracking).  I’m going to organize these into separate RSS and twitter feeds that you will be able to subscribe to and follow.

In a few days, I will post a list of the feeds I have identified so far, and would be glad to receive lists of any others from you.

And I’ll do some quality control and weeding out before making any aggregated feed public.  There’s nothing worse than having an unqualified source mixed in and creating confusion.  All postings from Living Prepared™ will be clearly identified with the source – and you will always be able to look them up from this site.