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Twitter to detect earthquakes, tsunamis

Geosciences Australia has flagged that social networking applications such as Twitter may become the latest means for sourcing data on earthquakes and tsunamis in the region.

Read more of Computerworld's CeBIT 2011 coverage

At the CeBIT conference in Sydney this week, the agency's Geospatial and Earth Monitoring Division chief, Andrew Barnicoat, said the use of Twitter in the US had shown the potential of the medium to detect such natural disasters.

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"The US Geological Survey is starting to use social media as a sensor network ... and runs a Twitter earthquake detector," he said.

"It is effectively a crowd-to-agency system ... and the tweeted reports of having felt an earthquake [and] a social epicentre is defined by this data.

"This sort if response can be faster than our traditional seismometer networks in telling us that an earthquake is coming.

"The Gen Ys of this world get on social media much faster than those earthquake waves can travel around the world ... electrons travel faster than sound waves."

According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), its Twitter Earthquake Detector gathers real-time, earthquake-related messages from the social networking site Twitter and applies place, time, and keyword filtering to gather geolocated accounts of shaking.

The USGS says that using social media people local to an event are able to publish information via these technologies within seconds of their occurrence.

In contrast, depending on the location of the earthquake, scientific alerts can take between two to 20 minutes.

Despite the potential of Twitter, Geoscience Australia was still in the early stages of understanding how social networking data might be integrated and used as an agency and public tool, Barnicoat said.

"I have staff that is champing at the bit [to use Twitter] but I am anticipating that in the next 12 months, we will be moving to do experiments with it," he said.

"Our colleagues in the US are certainly ahead of us with it ... but it is experimental, to say the least.

"As a technical organisation, we are still trying to come to grips with how it would add value to us; it certainly adds valuable information but it is a question of on what timeline."

Barnicoat said the principle use of Twitter would likely be in speeding up the agency's response when providing estimates on the extent of damage from an earthquake.

"When we know how far it is felt, then we can predict using our tools the sort of damage there is and that enables an appropriate emergency response to be targeted," he said.


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