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.

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3 Responses

  1. […] Prutsalis at Living Prepared Blog in New York expresses his concern over government agencies using Twitter as an emergency notification service. No government agency […]

  2. […] You can read the complete post by clicking here. […]

  3. […] posted an excerpt of Mark Prutsalis’ (@LivingPrepared, website) August 13, 2009 article Use of Twitter as an Emergency Notification Service. Both became relevant this past week when Twitter experienced serious outage issues making its site […]

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