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May 15 / Dave Schumaker

Disseminating Information: Twitter vs. USGS on the Sichuan Earthquake

On Sunday evening, noted Bay Area tech blogger Robert Scoble, became one of the first people in the western hemisphere to find out about a large earthquake in China. He reposted a message he received on his Twitter account about the breaking news and within minutes, thousands of people around the world were aware that something had just happened.

Robert Scoble\'s Tweet after the Sichuan Earthquake
Scoble’s Twitter message immediately after the Sichuan earthquake.

Later that evening, Scoble wrote a message on his blog, explaining how Twitter beat the USGS with information about the earthquake and sharing his amazement at learning about news as it happened on Twitter. Rory Cellan-Jones, a technology blogger for the BBC News, even went on to imply that this could mark Twitter’s “coming of age,” and establish its importance in disseminating information about major news events.

Does this really establish Twitter’s importance as a source of news? And how does this compare with the response time and information available from the USGS?

More after the jump.

Danny Sullivan, of Search Engine Land, posted a good article about the situation and interviewed Scoble and Gary Price. Price raised some great points in response to Scoble, namely that the Twitter posts (which are also limited to 140 characters) did not have important information such as epicenter location, depth, focal mechanisms or magnitude.

In terms of earthquakes, this is an especially valid point when it comes to central China or even the central United States, which both sit upon their respective continental cratons. Due to the dense and somewhat homogenous bedrock, an earthquake in these regions are felt over large distances. Someone who lives near the epicenter of a large earthquake in Missouri will think the world is about to end. Someone in South Carolina who feels the same earthquake will think they had a small earthquake near their home. There is no value in the person from South Carolina posting a message on Twitter that says, “Hah, we just had a small earthquake.”

Compare that to the info that was available within minutes on the USGS website.

Without the prior mentioned important information, how useful is a Twitter post? Folks who felt the earthquake in Japan would naturally be concerned about the immediate threat of tsunamis and reading through Twitter responses would be of no use in determining where the earthquake originated from (sea or land?). Scoble agrees with Price about the limited information and goes on to say that Twitter might be a good reminder to check the USGS (or your favorite local geological/seismic agency’s) website.

I would be willing to argue that if you felt an earthquake, you would probably be checking those websites anyway. Twitter is intriguing as a form of citizen journalism on a micro-scale. I used it myself to document the Olympic Torch relay through San Francisco in April. But on a macro scale with a major natural disaster, I think the lack of important information and the signal-to-noise ratio would be too great.

There is also the fact that Twitter is unreliable. It consistently has problems delivering messages (called Tweets) to users and the site itself is not a bastion of stability either. It’s currently down as I write this (for the second time in two days) and has a history of going down at inopportune moments.

Twitter is nice and it’s fun, but to use it as a primary source of information, a tool for emergencies or to suggest that it represents a threat to mainstream media is irresponsible in my opinion.

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