Monday, October 12, 2015

How to Detect an Earthquake in Less Than 14 Tweets

Once limited by the range of its sensors, the U.S. Geological Survey is using crowdfunded tweets on a global scale to monitor earthquakes

Twitter states that people send out about 500 million tweets a day. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), a government agency that tracks worldwide earthquakes, happens to sift through those half a billion tweets when tracking the geological movement of the Earth.

Through the USGs has 2,000 real time earthquake sensor units at its disposal, but most of them are U.S.-based and don’t quite cover the distance that millions of active Tweeters might. Therefore the use of Twitter data can bring earthquakes to USGS’s attention when their sensors have yet to detect an earthquake, or when their out-of-range sensors might not have detected them at all.

As a global effort, USGS reviews Tweets in several languages, monitoring for various words indicating the word for “earthquake.” The use of Twitter allows USGS a more global approach to detect earthquakes. USGS receives an email to alert them if there is Twitter activity regarding an earthquake.

In a blog post, Twitter Communication Manager Elaine Ellis stated that USGS was able to locate a 2014 earthquake in Chile in a time span of less than 14 Tweets. She also states that “USGS staffers Paul Earle, a seismologist, and Michelle Guy, a software developer, teamed up to look at how Twitter data could be used for earthquake detection and verification.” 

USGS found that Tweets regarding earthquakes are generally short—as one might expect given the circumstances—typically coming in at under seven words. The first wave of tweets also do not typically include forwards, links with earthquake information or the magnitude of the earthquake; these Tweets generally come after an earthquake. Most initial Tweets happen to be as simple as “Earthquake?”.

USGS uses Tweets and their own equipment to monitor an average of 50 earthquakes a day or about 200,000 a year. By looking at Twitter data, USGS is looking at speeding up their detection time. So don’t be afraid to add your Tweet to the mix, you never know when your Tweet might have a global impact.


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