Twitter As A Business Continuity Tool?

Twitter logo My ex-colleague Lara Torvi sent me a Government Technology article yesterday entitled “Twitter is a Continuity of Operations Tool, State Agency Discovers.”

The gist of the article is that the Washington State Department of Transportation, alongside using its Twitter account for mundane things like traffic alerts, is using Twitter to ensure continuity of operations in an emergency.

“”In an emergency, people will come to our Web site, [www.wsdot.wa.gov] en masse to the point that it overwhelms our servers — we’ve had that happen during snowstorms and other major weather events,” [spokesperson Lloyd] Brown said. Because the Web site is a popular source of traffic updates, sometimes it can’t handle a sudden spike in page hits, he said. During an emergency, WSDOT is considering the option of posting a “neutered,” bare-bones version of its Web site that contains a Web link to the Twitter feed.”

Government? Twitter…?!

Before I get into any more detail, I have to say it’s great that Washington State is looking at tools like Twitter. So hats-off to them for pushing the boat here.

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of Twitter. I’m frustrated beyond belief by ongoing technical and customer service issues, but I’m still a fan of Twitter and its potential. I’m far from a sceptic here.

With all that said (even setting aside the dreadful case study of governors’ offices pumping out news releases, cited at the beginning of the article), I have some concerns about the department’s using Twitter as a business continuity tool.

Twitter is no bastion of reliability

Happily, Twitter seems to have overcome the constant reliability problems that plagued it a few months ago. However, services are still regularly compromised or disabled.

Would you put your business continuity plan for your website in the hands of a site with those problems?

It’s not clear whether Twitter is the only part of the site left up in an emergency situation, or if the state is using it as a way to get quick updates up as a small part of the site. Regardless, I’m not sure you can rely on it… yet… in an emergency.

Twitter has a 140-character limit

A year ago, I advocated using Twitter as an emergency management tool, but alongside other online tools – not replacing them.

Twitter’s 140-character limit makes it unsuitable for communicating effectively as your primary tool in an emergency. Emergency news, information and instructions doesn’t always boil down to 140-character snippets.

Twitter could make a fantastic addition to your emergency communications plan, but it’s an inferior replacement for your other tools.

Twitter has no revenue model… yet

Why should we care that Twitter has no revenue? Because that means it has no cash flow. That means that, eventually, it will run out of money, even given its $15 million cash infusion earlier this year.

Hopefully the time when they run out of money will never come. Still, do you want your business continuity model to rely on a tool that could go under any day?

Why not build your own version?

With the release of the open source Laconica application, it became relatively easy for organizations to produce their own in-house version of Twitter.

The department could, conceivably, solve the reliability, longevity and character limit problems of Twitter by producing their own application.

Of course, that system would suffer from not having the ongoing base of subscribers that the deparment’s Twitter account possesses and, along with it, the ability to reach those subscribers via SMS. However, with just 149 subscribers right now, that’s not a big loss.

Why not keep the other information there?

This one is based on the assumption that the Twitter feed is pretty much the only thing left up when traffic goes through the roof. Without knowing more, I can’t be sure that’s the case, hence this point is last in my list.

Bottom line: There are plenty of other websites out there that maintain their websites in a stripped-down version in case of emergency.

The San Diego Union Tribune, for example, has become a hub for information during Californian wildfires. They keep their site up by stripping the images out when traffic is high.

If the state’s website is reduced to essentially a Twitter feed, that’s a mistake. There’s almost certainly essential information there that you need to have available during an emergency.

Static text takes up very little bandwidth.

Credit for creativity

I’m coming across as pretty harsh right now, because I’m not sure how wise the department’s move is, however pure their motives.

With that said, though, I do applaud their willingness to think creatively, push the staid government approaches to emergency management out of the way and try new ways of keeping their systems going under pressure.

Twitter does have some useful features for this kind of use. The ability to push messages out via SMS (and eventually instant messenger) in an emergency is one example. Its simplicity is another.

As I said earlier, I’m not usually a big sceptic. I like to think that I’m not drunk on the kool aid – that I take a pragmatic approach in assessing these new tools, which results in me dismissing many of them – but I’m definitely open to new things.

In this case, though, I just worry that the department has chosen a risky way of approaching continuity. It just takes one ill-timed series of fail whales to render the whole experiment a failure.

What do you think?

  • It’s definitely an interesting concept, and if used properly, I don’t see a problem with using Twitter as a continuity tool.

    Use it like the Stock Exchange Ticker boards, with short, concise updates.

    Or, like the recent Hurricane Gustav and others, to update weather conditions, areas affected, etc, for families looking for real-time updates.

    It’s definitely got some huge potential ahead of it if it can be harnessed.

  • I actually tried traffic updates out with an economic development organization during a large event. It turned out to be a “learnable moment.” We had the system down, but the staff member who was set to do it passed it off to another person who didn’t quite understand that people would be relying on their tweets for updates on a regular basis. The spare amount of information made for angry followers. I don’t think it is out of the question, but there needs to be a clear understanding by whomever uses it, what followers expectations are. Training and buy-in are key, as is a clear definition of what is appropriate/necessary to communicate and how often.

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  • Actually, I think entities, whether government of business, are being encouraged to use Twitter for just such purposes. It’s incumbent upon Twitter to then be even more reliable, to develop a steady source of funding, and to fix long-standing issues. If this means replicating Twitter across servers (which it may already be), then so be it. If it means hiring top-notch programmers who can take the now-legacy system, tweak or replace it for better, then so be it. If dependence on Twitter is going to happen, then we certainly don’t want it to be less than.

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