The US government is detecting earthquakes by searching for people tweeting: ‘earthquake?’

Twitter’s data is being used by the US Geological Survey to help find out when earthquakes are happening

Twitter can be used to identify an earthquake in less than 30 seconds – often much faster than scientific detection equipment – in some situations, and is being used by the US government to track the events.

For some of the 300 million or so people who use Twitter, their first reaction when the ground shakes may not be to secure one’s fragile posessions or stand under a doorway, but to tweet: “earthquake?”.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) can then use those tweets, cross-referencing it with their geo-location data, to quickly identify where an earthquake is occuring, according to a post on Twitter’s blog.

In one instance – last year’s earthquake in South Napa, San Francisco, Twitter data was used to detect an earthquake in 29 seconds. While this is a particularly tech-savvy part of the world, meaning lots of people tweeting about the earthquake, Twitter has also been used in Chile to identify incidents on several occasions.

“The USGS National Earthquake Information Center processes about 2,000 realtime earthquake sensors, with the majority based in the United States. That leaves a lot of empty space in the world with no sensors,” Twitter said.

“On the other hand, there are hundreds of millions of people using Twitter who can report earthquakes. At first, the USGS staff was a bit skeptical that Twitter could be used as a detection system for earthquakes – but when they looked into it, they were surprised at the effectiveness of Twitter data for detection.”

Researchers found that when tweeting about earthquakes, people tend to keep their messages short and sharp. Simply tweeting “earthquake?” is the most common indicator.

The data can also determine false positives: If the USGS is getting readings suggesting the possibility of an earthquake in a busy area, but no tweets, it suggests it may be a false alarm.

Twitter earthquake detection

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