USGS Develops Twitter-Based Earthquake Detection System | ecopolitology
The energy behind that kind of behavior is what is behind the Twitter Earthquake Detection (USGSted) project Dr. Earle is heading up. TED uses the Twitter social networking platform to collect real-time, earthquake-related messages from anywhere around the globe. “For earthquakes in sparsely instrumented regions, these detections could provide an initial heads up that an earthquake may have occurred,” explains Earle.
TED uses an application programming interface that aggregates tweets based on keywords like “earthquake” and “tremor” to pull tweets about a particular earthquake into a database. Then the USGS generates an e-mail report containing the magnitude, location, depth below the surface, number of tweets about the earthquake broken down by their location, and text of the first 40 or 50 tweets.
The system may help the USGS locate earthquakes that are too small to be detected by its network of sensors. “As you get outside the United States and in some regions of the United States, the seismographic network is very sparse,” Earle said. “So you’ll get these tweets in before you can actually locate it with our system.”
Twitter certainly has its limits as an earthquake reporting and detecting tool, and will not be replacing USGS’ Did You Feel It? or ShakeMaps any time soon. But scientists see value in the social platform if it is used in conjunction with or alongside existing systems. Where USGSted soars (speed, ease of use, low barriers to entry, an existing and essentially free platform), it also meets its limits: A twitter-based system limits message length to 140 characters; the social component of twitter also creates a host of filtering and clustering challenges (retweets and casual uses of earthquake-related words like references to the video game ‘Quake’ need to filtered out); and finally, not everyone has geo-tagging enabled, which can provide inconsistent, and otherwise low-utility tweets.
Also, most ‘quake-centric’ tweets will generally lack a ton of hard data, instead falling into the ‘qualitative data’ camp. These are usually personal reactions, quick recollections and little bits of narrative that can help capture descriptive dimensions of earthquakes that hard scientific data might not adequately capture.