US scientists using Twitter to identify earthquakes

Earthquake scale style clock

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is using micro-blogging service Twitter to more quickly and accurately gauge the severity of earthquakes.

Traditionally, the USGS which tracks and reports earthquakes around the world has relied primarily on seismic data to identify new tremors and quakes. But with such data typically taking around 20 minutes to be chewed by the monitoring equipment, the agency has started looking at first-hand information being sent into the cloud by Twitter users.

USGS scientists have launched a Twitter Earthquake Detection (TED) project that continuously sifts through tweets looking for all mentions of the word "earthquake" including local-language equivalents and then builds online maps showing trends that may indicate seismic activity.

"Many people use Twitter to tell others what is going on around them," USGS scientist Paul Earle said in an interview yesterday. "So after an earthquake they often rapidly report that an earthquake has occurred and describe the experience."

Of course, simply pulling in all mentions of the word "earthquake" doesn't guarantee accurate results, as the data will be muddied by any uses in tweets of the word in a non-seismic context. But the data is nonetheless useful in pinpointing trends that are likely to be real earthquakes while the raw seismic data is still being processed.

According to agency scientist Michelle Guy, "the basic difference is speed versus accuracy. Analysing the tweets provides an early indication of what people experience before the quantitative information becomes available".