Can Twitter save lives?

October 23, 2007

In times of natural disaster, many people turn to traditional news and media outlets for the latest updates and information about the status of their community. But, what if those traditional news and media outlets aren’t available to you? What if you don’t have access to a radio or a television or the Internet? Chances are, you probably still have access to a cell-phone.

Push-based notification systems like Twitter are now the de-facto standard for keeping up with your friends during geeked-out conferences like SXSW or Adobe MAX. But can they be used for something more? Can they, perhaps, save lives?

As you may know by now, my hometown of San Diego has been ablaze with unrelenting wildfires for the past 2 days. San Diego’s local public radio and television broadcaster, KPBS has made surprisingly effective use of Twitter’s messaging system to keep us few tech-savvy citizens updated with the latest evacuation, damage and fire containment information. Kudos to KPBS for their creative use of this technology.

Local authorities have been using what has been called “Reverse 911” to notifiy local residents of evacuation orders in their area. Reverse 911 is essentially a massive phone dialer, able to dial thousands of numbers from a set list or (assuming landline) by geography. Like Twitter, it is a push technology. But, unlike Twitter, it is limited to phones. What we really need, in times of emergency, is a new kind of Twitter — a state- or county-supported Twitter where every citizen with a cell phone can choose to subscribe to an automatic notification service and receive SMS messages on local emergencies. Everything from fires, to floods, to tornadoes to hurricanes. (I’d add earthquakes to that list, but at present, we can’t predict earthquakes and thus can’t provide advance warnings about them.) This system could provide notifications on everything from damage reports to evacuations to volunteer and donation requests, and remain accessible on-the-go.

An intriguing idea indeed, but unfortunately I’m probably a bit too forward-thinking for the present government. Nevertheless, as more and more people abandon traditional landlines in favor of mobile devices, in five to ten years such an imaginary system may just become reality.