Twitter As A Hyper-Local Emergency Information Tool?

Twitter has many features that give it potential as an information provider. Information is real-time, it’s available through multiple devices and Twitter can make that information scale to large audiences easily.

Twitter logoHowever, very few services are taking advantage of the potential of these features right now. That’s understandable – Twitter has a history of instability (although it’s much improved recently) and, despite a fair amount of mainstream media coverage, it’s still far from mainstream.

However, let’s consider a potential use of Twitter for a moment.

Emergency Service Twittering

Toronto’s Police Service and Toronto Fire Service are both on Twitter@TorontoPolice and @TOFire (the police account isn’t official – it’s not clear whether the fire one is or not – but they’re both represented).

Both of these feeds currently churn out automated updates. The police one is fed from the news releases on the Toronto Police Service website, while the fire account comes from the service’s Computer Aided Dispatch system’s feed.

Right now there’s little reason to subscribe to these feeds. Little of the information is going to be relevant to me – it’s generic and unfiltered. I don’t want to see every incident in Toronto – they usually have little relevance to me. Other people seem to agree – the @TorontoPolice account currently has just eight followers while the @TOFire account has 22.

That got me thinking.

Hyper-Local Twitter Accounts?

However, what if the emergency services start official accounts and focus them on individual neighbourhoods?

If I could subscribe to a feed of incidents in the immediate vicinity of my house, I would. No question. I care if a house in my neighbourhood is on fire, or if someone is attacked around the corner from my house, or if a kid goes missing nearby.

The Toronto Police Service could, for example, have different feeds for general news, downtown core incidents, and for each neighbourhood, with stories automatically filtered into the relevant feeds. Simple, useful and cheap to set up. It’s information that’s already available too, so it’s not mission-critical if Twitter goes down. The only real difference would be that the information would be categorized differently.

As an added benefit, Twitter would push out the updates in real-time (very useful if your house is on fire). What’s more, the smaller number of alerts in each feed as a result of the location filters would mean I’d have no issue pumping them through to my cellphone via SMS.

That’s the difference between what’s (unofficially) on Twitter now and what could be there. One is generic and largely useless; the other is specific and useful.

What do you think? Would you be interested if your emergency services provided location-specific feeds for your neighbourhood?

  • I agree that there are definitely a lot of great technologies available that can help to make communities safer.

    One of my pipe dreams is to integrate our amber alert system with both SMS and MMS technologies. That way when a child goes missing, all people in close proximity to where the child was seen last could be instantly notified with a picture and or description. (This could also be done using twitter and twitpic.)

    To answer your question directly – Yes I would be interested in hyper-local emergency feeds for my neighbourhood!

  • I also would be very interested in being able to not only subscribe/follow my immediate neighborhood, but immediate neighborhoods of those I additionally choose.. (like where my children may be..)

    My grandmother used to sit and listen to a police scanner, when I was a child. I don’t need to be that stressed out. (We lived in a big major city.)

    I’d always give sms/mms space to missing children, with a follow feature for where I may happen to be, or a wide multi-county/city area. It would be easier to read than the flashing DOT signs, on the interstate, that just leave me worried that I didn’t get the whole message.

    If I lived or traveled near a prison, I’d want fugitive alerts, too.

    I’m sure the list can go on.. like DOT traffic, for my area. The local tweeters broadcast these type of things now with #codes. I’d be most interested, in this arena, for roads that were completely closed/blocked with construction, too. Detours, where I live, assume you know the area, and getting lost because of a detour just ticks me off and makes me late.

  • patrice cloutier

    hey Dave !
    How about agencies using Twitter as a public alerting tool … for a somewhat greater geographical area ???

    It’s something we’re considering but obstacles remain … mainly the need to streamline our approvals process … even during an emergency … otherwise the info sent out wouldn’t be relevant for the twittering masses …

  • Hey Patrice,

    I think as long as Twitter is an “and” not an “or” – i.e. it doesn’t replace other means – then it has some potential.

    The important part, I think, is relevance. Floods in Kaschechewan, for example, are interesting but have little relevance to me as a Torontonian (and vice versa). However, if agencies could effectively narrow alerts down to towns or smaller regions and publicise the feeds for these alerts, it has potential. Even taking Twitter out of the equation, geographically-specific RSS feeds would be a start.

    Another challenge for government agencies is raising awareness and getting people to care about the additional channel. That’s why this would need to be a bolt-on addition alongside email or other notifications.

    You’re right, though – streamlined approvals would do much more to improve emergency information for governments than would additional tools.

    That’s my brain-dump on it, anyway 🙂 What do you think?

  • Dan

    Here’s my question: Why focus on official agencies? Official agencies are culturally more invested in LIMITING information during emergencies than COMMUNICATING that information. Twitter gives us an instant work-around for that bottleneck…

    Here’s what I wrote about it in March, when I was first trying to imagine a way to get from that San Diego Wildfires firehose to a more usable, curated info stream:

    And then we built a live-prototype, using free technology, for the CreateSouth conference in April. It involved asking Tweeters to Follow an Twitter Account ( and then creating an RSS feed out of the account’s followers’ Tweets. I then configured a widget to display those feeds, and posted that on a blogspot blog for demonstration.

    Result: An instant newswire about an event (scheduled or unscheduled), with a signal-to-noise ratio that was significantly higher than background normal, and a natural alert system.

    Since April that test has been made obsolete by, which is not only a great event/meme tracker, but also provides an RSS feed for any search term, enabling you to instantly export that query to an external viewer.

    Hence: is the RSS feed for the query “plane crash.” If I’ve got a local plane crash, it will quickly overtake the non-local plane crash tweets, so it’s relatively high signal-to-noise with a very low barrier to entry. What it needs is a way to alert people to events, and that’s easily done with either official or non-official Twitter accounts.

    I don’t think our conference presentation on this idea was a success, but our experience with using these tools suggests this is a major trend for the future of news media, both on the nano and macro scales.

  • I could see Twitter (or any other feed) having potential. The ability to get information about the static locations in your life, like home or work, is well suited to Twitter or some other RSS.

    If location-based social software based on GPS or cell phone triangulation become available, there could be the possibility of subscribing to relevant alerts within say, 5km of your current location.

    I see plenty of possibility for hyper-local communication.

  • I still don’t trust Twitter’s reliability when compared to SMS. And I think you need cellular geodetic info to ensure truly authentic information services. Google already has this figured out with Jaiku, although Jaiku’s markiet penetration is anemic outside of Scandanavia.

  • Twitter feeds wouldn’t have to be just for emergency news, either. Local schools could send tweets about fundraisers, for example, and mom-and-pop stores could announce surprise sales for their loyal neighbourhood customers. Why not?

  • I can’t speak for Toronto’s feeds, but one of the best examples of a law enforcement agency using Twitter as a broadcast service for its residents is the Los Angeles Fire Department at @LAFD.

    The LAFD uses Twittermail.

  • Dave,

    Great article. Pleas know we’re already on it (hyperlocal that is) for both alerting and after-action reports.

    We knew from the outset that our mainstream LAFD Twitter could be a bit much for some, and we hope to roll our more localized version out of the LAFD Labs later this year.

    Please keep up the great work that makes your feed a daily must read.

    Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service,

    Brian Humphrey
    Public Service Officer
    Los Angeles Fire Department

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