Haiti Quake Propels Use of Twitter as Disaster-Relief Tool

BY Larisa Epatko  February 16, 2010 at 5:23 PM EST

Kate Starbird, a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, studies the use of Twitter during crises. When she and the other UC researchers heard about the massive earthquake in Haiti on Jan. 12, all they could do for the first two days was what everyone else was doing: watch the horrible images in the news and read about it as a devastating event rather than as a research subject.

“We were just so overwhelmed,” she said. “We didn’t know what to do.”

But by the third day, they decided to go ahead and launch a Twitter initiative several months in the making, called “Tweak the Tweet”. The objective is to repurpose tweets with a syntax, or language structure, in order to streamline the process of connecting people with specific needs in emergency situations with those who can provide it.

“We hadn’t really fleshed it all out, but we just want to help out. And so we kind of jumped outside of our research boots on this one and we’re just actively trying to help in any way we can,” she said.

The idea — Starbird’s brainchild — was developed with the help of her mentor Leysia Palen, an assistant professor of computer science at UC, as part of a National Science Foundation-funded project called Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis, or EPIC, awarded in September.

Reformatting the tweets with hash tags, (e.g. #Haiti), imposes a structure on the language that can be more easily read by computers and organized in databases to better understand people’s needs, where they are, how much of those supplies are needed, and what people are offering in disaster events, Palen said.

“It tries to make those Twitter communications a little bit more systematic and data extractable,” she said. (View examples of tweaked tweets.)

During the earthquake, the project got an enthusiastic response with dozens of volunteers monitoring tweets and rewriting them in the correct syntax, both in English and French, one of Haiti’s main languages, said Palen. The Sahana disaster Web portal imported the repurposed tweets. Another disaster relief Web site, Ushahidi, used the tweets to map aid requests for non-governmental organizations and allowed others to see requests and track the needs answered.

“There are messages that we have passed on or created, and those needs have been met,” Starbird said. But “there’s no way for us to say that it was our message; it was the collective action of all those people in the network to get the information up.”

Starbird explains Tweak the Tweet in this video posted by the Boulder Daily Camera:

Andy Carvin, senior strategist at NPR who runs the social media desk, said Haiti posed some challenges for a Twitter-based initiative like Tweak the Tweet, including low Internet usage in the population before the earthquake, and the interruption of telecommunications services immediately after the quake.

“Compared with a hurricane happening in the U.S., for example, or a protest even in Iran, you didn’t see the outpouring of tweets in Haiti as you would in those other instances,” Carvin said. But Twitter was still useful, he said. “There were a few dozen people who were in Haiti who turned their Twitter accounts essentially into news wire services and were passing along information as they found it. And we actually used a number of these individuals in our news stories in the first few days after the earthquake.”

Starbird acknowledged that even if people on the ground used Twitter and knew the emergency syntax, in a disaster situation they might not have the wherewithal to use it. That’s where the volunteers come in, she said. “People on the outside want to help, and this sort of crowd-sourcing thing that goes on in the social media comes out full force during events like this.”

Other online disaster response tools evolved during the Haiti earthquake, including “People Finder” and “Open Street Map”, some of the projects featured on Crisiscommons.org.

Open Street Map plots the locations of cities, hospitals, damaged buildings, etc., making everything downloadable to GPS maps for use by crisis-response teams. (View the map for Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince.)

And Google’s People Finder, which became even more automated during the Haiti quake, said Carvin, was aimed at providing a centralized location for sites scattered across the Web that posted information about lost loved ones.

“For really the first time in social media’s history of online disaster response, I think we can claim quite legitimately this time that these social media volunteer activities have saved lives,” he said.