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Twitter USGS: Earthquake Social, Since 2009

Earthquakes occur without warning and rapidly focus thousands, and often millions, of people’s attention on a single event. People naturally begin to share their shock and experiences and, with the ubiquity of social media, the sharing happens quickly. Within seconds of a felt earthquake, people start to tweet. These short reports of first-hand experiences are rapidly distributed around the globe, and may be received at an earthquake observatory before the arrival of seismic waves, which take more than two minutes to propagate to distances of 1000 km or further.


In regions with sparse seismic instrumentation, which cover much of the planet, these tweets are often the first indication that a disaster has occurred. Since 2009, the US Geological Survey has been operating a real-time system with crowd-sourced tweets as the only input to rapidly detect, locate, and assess the impact of felt earthquakes worldwide.


The system gathers tweets with the word “earthquake” or its translation in several languages using publicly available tools provided by Twitter. It detects events, generally within 20-120 seconds of an earthquake, by continuously scanning for rapid increases in the frequency of earthquake tweets. For earthquake detection, we use only tweets with less than seven words; people rapidly tweeting after an earthquake are not verbose. Tweets can also be automatically scanned for words indicative of damage, and mapped to estimate the spatial extent of the shaken region.

Twitter USGS team: Paul Earle is the Director of Operations for the US Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC), where he oversees its 24/7 earthquake monitoring mission. He guides the development and implementation of new policies and procedures used during earthquake response; Michelle Guy is a computer scientist who architects and manages highly specialized, real-time scientific software systems. These one-of-a-kind systems serve to bring the unique science of the US Geological Survey into real-time operations and produce products for worldwide consumption by emergency responders, government agencies, and the general public.

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