Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Twitter, The Sichuan Quake, and Emergency Response

Eric Rice started a thread of discussion on The Sichuan Quake and the Hubris of Twitter Users on his friendfeed. I had more than 255 characters worth of though (or whatever the comment character limit is), so I thought I would blog about it here.http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif

For those not on twitter or not following the twitter/earthquake discussion, there was much discussion about how the Earthquake in Sichuan China was reported first on twitter (see Scoble's article for an example) and a counter discussion on how we are overstating twitter's importance. What follows is my take on the subject.

Ok there are a few levels here. First off for local response first responders are going to want a coordinated form of communication. Hand talkies - whether ham or other format that convey voice would be my first choice. During a lot crisises these days people are relying on cell phones - everyone has one and they seem reliable. This isn't necessarily bad (at least in the US) because the phone companies have disaster plans and set up temporary communication towers quickly and drill on this. Yeah a ham radio may be more reliable but if you don't carry it on you and your standard system is cell phones it isn't going to help in a crisis. Finding a way to make the tools on-hand work is going to be way more useful.

Does this mean there is no use for Ham radio anymore? No, I would say that Ham radio is still very useful - they can be part of a disaster response, they have an ability to send messages great distances when local trunks will be overloaded even if functioning. Ham radio operators are part of RACES and ARES (and I suspect other country equivalents) and they drill and prepare to respond to emergencies. Ham radio is often part of the backbone that coordinates the overall response.

So that's great for local but what about outside of the local area. Well Ham radio will get some messages out, but tools like Twitter have the ability to spread the message quickly - among those who are watching. This means friends on twitter may be updated by a single SMS message that their friend is ok. This is way more efficient and taxes the phone trunks much less. This also means that interested people can know faster, and it may provide a connection to those in the situation that is helpful. Yeah it may not get a first responder to their door but when you are in a situation like that you can be perfectly healthy and safe but concerned about your friends. Twitter can provide a comfort that way.

More important than the local and the immediate friend/family connections twitter has it's true power in a great way to get the news out beyond the local area. It does give a personal face to a disaster, and it may become the source for news reports in the future, but even more importantly it can be part of early detechttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.giftion and early response, both of disasters, but also of potential epidemics. If you look at the INSTEDD program (video) it was started on the basis that scanning local messages for reports of diseases and disasters (as GPHIN was doing) was finding diseases like SARS months before organizations tasked with detecting this - such as WHO. Things like twitter are going to only speed this up - because the crawling can now see near real time chat rather than blog posts which tend to come a bit later along. I believe it is these features that extend outside of the locality of the crisis are where tools like twitter are adding something new.

So yes, twitter is an awesome tool and it is reporting things earlier - and better yet it is reporting it in a way that gets the message out with details that may help with early detection and early response. Should it be the only communication system. Of course not. Relying on any single system in an emergency creates a weakness in the response system, a single point of failure. Are we overstating twitter's importance. Probably, but some of this is the amazement that twitter does provide this feature so well and part of it is our desire to help explain why twitter is useful to those who look at it and go "Why?" Our excitement about our new tools shouldn't reduce our response and attention to disasters, for that would be true hubris, but at the same time these new tools have a place in improving our response and reaction time to these events.

1 comment:

Shamir said...

The international organization that oversees, among other things, amateur radio at their last meeting made a statement to the effect that they believed that in the event of emergencies there is nothing that can replace amateur radio. They went on to suggest that governments do more to encourage amateur radio and, in particular, the emergency services provided by amateur radio.

Often amateur radio is the ONLY communication that will work as the infrastructures that emergency services rely on prove themselves to be inadequate to the task.