could Tweets help you during a natural disaster?

Amidst the growing number of extreme weather conditions due to climate change, could 280 characters of text make a difference? Social networking site Twitter seems to think so, and backs it up with some fascinating data.


do you even Tweet, bruh?

Amongst my colleagues, I’m probably the only one who uses Twitter just as much as I use other social networking sites. And while it’s a tricky to explain its appeal to the younger Gen Z crowd with their snaccs and incessant yeet-ing…

I often tell them I use Twitter for:

1. Venting frustrations (e.g. ‘Why did I eat that McSpicy omg’)

2. Sharing things I think would value-add to the lives of my 97 followers (e.g. ‘haha did you know you can’t lick your elbow lol wat even’)

3. Searching Tweets by other angry viewers of a specific TV series who aren’t pleased about its ending  (I’m looking at you GoT)

Of course, there are many others who use the platform more intelligently.

Personally, I like to think there’s still a certain appeal to tweeting, or microblogging in general. It’s instantaneous, far-reaching, and often times, doesn’t require too much thought – as some would argue has been proven by a certain ex-reality TV star/President. *coughs*

So yes, tweeting is fun. But when it comes down to its importance on a larger scale, in terms of actually making a difference and impacting lives… well, does it?

so let’s play pretend for a moment.

Mmm. Why does everything so good end up being so bad? | Image credits: McDonalds Singapore

For instance, if you, a stranger, chance upon my ‘Why did I eat that McSpicy omg’ tweet, it likely wouldn’t do much except perhaps elicit an eye roll.

But imagine this – say you’re living in Jakarta, and you know that there’s something off about the weather though there’s nothing on the news just yet. You search “#banjir” (flood in Bahasa Indonesia) on Twitter, and you read hundreds of panicky, possibly incoherent Tweets about floods in areas near you. Would that be useful? Kinda.

Now imagine if someone collected useful information shared in those Tweets and created a map with real-time updates that pinpointed all the affected areas to avoid. Yup. That’s something that could potentially save lives.   

Twitter to the rescue.

A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change showed that human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes. These include the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation.

Image credits: Twitter

There’ve been more conversations about climate change too, with English-language Tweets from 2013 to 2020 that mention “climate change” increasing an average of 50% over 7 years.

And when adverse weather conditions strike, Tweets continue at all stages of the disaster. Users tweet about changes in the weather they notice before disaster strikes (e.g. higher water levels, hotter than usual temperatures), during the event itself (real-time updates, calls for assistance) and even after (requests for humanitarian assistance and donations) it’s over.

A visualisation of conversations on Twitter during #ExtremeWeather conditions.

With the vast scale of information being shared on its platform, there was an opening for Twitter to do more good. By providing companies and individuals with programmatic access to its data through public application programming interfaces (APIs), Twitter allows developers to build apps and tools that consumers could use to draw insights from.

“Twitter’s uniquely open service has been used by people all around the world to share and exchange information in times of crisis. We recognise our responsibility in ensuring that people can find the information they need especially during a natural disaster, and have worked to amplify credible information from trusted media, government agencies, as well as relief and volunteer organisations,” said Kathleen Reen, Senior Director Public Policy and Philanthropy, Asia Pacific at Twitter.

Crises aside, Tweets have also proven their worth in allowing environmental activists to raise awareness about the climate crisis and connect with others who are just as passionate as they are.

ok cool, but let’s see some examples.

To give you a better idea of the helpfulness of Tweets during a crisis, Twitter has recently unveiled an interactive webpage. Created in collaboration with award-winning creative studio Design I/O, it explores how conversations evolved on the platform during extreme weather events.

for instance, remember the floods in Jakarta?

In January 2020, the Indonesian capital was hit with severe flooding, injuring dozens and displacing thousands. There were 20,000 Tweets made in Jakarta about the floods in the first week alone.

Peta Bencana developed a Twitter ‘humanitarian bot’ using an open source software called CogniCity. The bot could ‘listen’ for Tweets with keywords such as ‘banjir’. It would then respond with instructions on how to share observations. They were then able to create a flood map with the information gathered.

The Peta Bencana bot prompting a Twitter user for more details on their situation. | Image credits: Twitter

Users accessed the map over 259,000 times during peak flooding. Twitter users could gain a better understanding of the situation, avoid flooded areas, and make decisions about safety and response.

The Jakarta Emergency Management Agency (BPBD DKI Jakarta) also monitored the map to address resident needs, and coordinate their rescue response based on reported severity and need.

and there’s also more.

Similarly, Northern Japan was hit by Typhoon Hagibis in 2019. It saw 3 feet of rain in 24 hours in some regions, with 74 people losing their lives, and many others left homeless.

During the crisis, a Twitter Official Partner analysed and detected keywords related to flooding, earthquakes, power outages and other disasters. Their partner JX Press provided fast alerts, averaging 20 to 45 minutes ahead of many Japanese news outlets.

In Australia too, the bushfires of June 2019 to March 2020 devastated 13.6 million acres of wildlife and ecology. Brandwatch, a Twitter Official Partner analysed close to 10 million public Tweets related to the fires.

People used the service to connect with others to provide mutual aid and fundraising efforts. These included the ‘Find a Bed’ movement which found emergency accommodation for those displaced by the fires. Within a week of its launch, Find A Bed had accrued 7,000 listings and housed around 100 people.

so keep that blue bird singing.

On a larger scale, the openness of access to Twitter’s data also allows governments to effectively analyse data about how people are being affected.

So if you’re currently toying with the idea of removing that lil’ blue bird icon off your phone – don’t. Afterall, in times of crisis, the only thing you might actually have time for is to tap out 280 characters.

And if you’re thinking about giving the app a go, you should! I mean, the possible consequences of consuming a McSpicy is a warning that should be shared with the world.


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brintha loganathan

Apart from being futr Singapore's editor, Brin also churns out copy for Strada Visual Lab. Hobbies include mothering, "reality TV" and good beer. Mmm.

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