December 16, 2009

Scientists Use Twitter To Track Quakes

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) "” the federal agency responsible for recording and monitoring geographical, geological and geospatial trends "” has come up with a novel new way of tracking earthquakes.  Researchers at the organization have begun following posts on the microblogging site Twitter to help determine the severity and pinpoint the origin of quakes.

"People like to tweet after earthquakes," explained USGS seismologist Paul Earle at an American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco on Monday.

Typically, scientists have to sort through a flood of data from their seismic recording stations before they can begin to get an accurate picture of where an earthquake has struck "” a process that can be gruelingly time-consuming when emergency rescue teams are waiting for news on where to be dispatched. 

Now, however, researchers at the USGS they say that with basic filters they are able to sift through hundreds of "tweets" within minutes after an earthquake, helping them to put together a rough but quick sketch about the location and magnitude of the seismic event.

"It is a speed versus accuracy issue," explained Dr. Earle to BBC News.

"Twitter messages start coming out in the seconds after an earthquake whereas, depending of the region, scientifically derived information can take 2-20 minutes."

Dubbed the Twitter Earthquake Detection project, Earle explained that the new system works in tandem with USGS' national seismic network.  When network's sensors detect unusual seismic activity, it sends a message to the tweet-monitoring branch of the system, triggering it to automatically begin recording and screening Twitter activity.

Earle explained that one of the greatest obstacles thus far has been devising an effective filter to sort through unrelated artifact such as references to the popular video game classic "Quake" or the ice cream favorite "Oreo Brownie Earthquake."

"Because there is a lot of noise in this data ["¦] we don't believe this system could ever be used to initiate a critical response such as shutting down a nuclear power plant, but what it may do is give us an initial heads-up in a region which doesn't have a dense seismic network that further scientific evaluation is needed," explained Earle.

While the Twitter technology is unlikely to ever replace traditional scientific analysis of earthquakes, it may serve as a useful supplement, allowing both researchers and first-response teams to triage earthquakes and react quicker to the often devastating natural disasters.

A description of the project will soon be available in print in the journal Seismological Research Letters.


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