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?

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.