Relief groups turn to Twitter amid crises

From Asian disasters to SoCal wildfires, Twitter has often been the first source for vital updates

When a cyclone ravaged Burma earlier this month, and less than a week later when an earthquake devastated much of China's Sichuan province, some of the first accounts of the disasters were written by bloggers and organizations on Twitter.

Although some live tweets poured in from those in China who were near enough to shoot photos and video, others came from disaster-relief nonprofit organizations.

AmeriCares used Twitter (twitter.com/americares) to disseminate information about its response in Burma, and it plans to do the same for relief efforts in China once it solidifies a response plan, says Peggy Atherlay, the nonprofit's director of communications.

"We put up small headlines, snippets of our latest activities, so we can keep people updated on, for instance, when our first relief worker arrives in the country and when our second relief worker arrives in the country," she says. "For China, we have plans to use Twitter updates as soon as we know our plans more concretely and have more to report."

The Salvation Army, which has a presence in Burma, used its Twitter page (twitter.com/salvationarmy) to post updates on its efforts in the region, as well as China, as each disaster unfolded, using links to bring viewers to its home Web site, as well as to find further information.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone says that although the company didn't intend it to be a first-responder's tool, it certainly didn't rule it out either.

"Our offices are in the Bay Area, so even when we were prototyping Twitter, we found ourselves reaching for the mobile phones every time we felt a possible earthquake, so we had our own experiences early on realizing that in a shared event like an earthquake, being connected in real time is a huge advantage," Stone says.

"We're not... surprised [by the use of Twitter during the Chinese earthquake]," he adds. "Whenever there is a disaster in the world, there tends to be a spike in Twitter traffic."

By keeping an eye on Twitter messages aggregated by Google Talk, prominent technology blogger Robert Scoble claimed his tweet on the devastating earthquake in China, which caused an estimated death toll of about 50,000, appeared before the US Geological Survey was able to report it.

"It's amazing the news you can learn by being on Twitter and the connections you can make among people across the world," Scoble noted on his blog (www.scobleizer.com).

Though the American Red Cross doesn't have a staff in China, it did use Twitter (twitter.com/redcross), as well as traditional media notifications, to tell victims of last year's Southern California wildfires where to find help during the disaster, says Wendy Harman, senior associate for new media integration at the American Red Cross.

"Our first thought in creating this account [was] the people who were most affected by a disaster and distributing only the most useful information," she says. "If you're in [Oklahoma after a tornado] it can say, 'A shelter is located at 154 Main Street, and it will be open until this time.'"

Although Twitter posts are generally short, the Red Cross uses the service to link viewers to sites with more information.

"You can always just link to a Web site that has more detail, and the only real downside... is that if it's a really important piece of information, if [consumers] only have mobile phones, sometimes it is harder to click on that link," she says. "[Twitter] is a supplemental [method]. If it doesn't work, we just use a different method."

The US Fund for UNICEF is providing aid in both disasters, but it did not use Twitter for disaster response. However, it has used the technology to promote Jenna Bush's US book tour for Ana's Story, which is based on her experience as a UNICEF intern (twitter.com/jennabush). The fund hasn't ruled out using the tool as a part of future response strategies, says Alisa Aydin, director of interactive marketing for the nonprofit.

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