January 7, 2009 By Matt Williams
There's no middle ground in the court of public opinion about Twitter, a free "microblogging" site that a growing number of government agencies and officials are using to keep citizens informed about everything from press releases to car accidents and structural fires. People either love Twitter, or they just don't get it.
In short, Twitter lets users send and receive brief updates, which are capped at 140 characters of text. Users must sign up for a profile page on Twitter.com and then they can send text-based updates to subscribers, called "followers," or receive Twitter messages from people they choose to follow. Twitter is multiplatform: The messages, called "tweets," can be sent and received on Twitter.com, traditional e-mail accounts, mobile devices like smartphones, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and Facebook.
When Twitter's founders launched the service in 2006, they advertised it as a way to keep abreast of friends' everyday lives. The idea of "tweeting" in short bursts about mundane details - "I'm watching Dancing with the Stars!" - may seem narcissistic, or pointless. But a loyal following has found novel and unexpected applications for the service. This movement includes government agencies, which are use Twitter for various functions, such as real-time alerts about emergencies, election results and even science projects.
The most practical government applications for Twitter are in public safety and emergency notification. For example, the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) updates its Twitter page with bulletins about structural fires, the number of responding firefighters, and injuries and casualties. A typical post is something like: "12126 Burbank Bl* No 'formal' evacuations; Firefighters maintaining 500' exclusion zone pending LAFD Hazmat arrival."
When a commuter train derailed Sept. 12, 2008, in Chatsworth, Calif., killing dozens and injuring hundreds, the LAFD tweeted several times to update the public about rescue operations. And citizens near a wildfire in Griffith Park in 2007 tweeted to the LAFD about wind direction and smoldering hot spots, which helped firefighters control the 800-acre blaze.
If a post exceeds Twitter's 140-character limit, Brian Humphrey, an LAFD spokesman, posts the most critical snippet of the message with a Web address for TinyURL, a service that provides a short alias for long URL addresses. That way, the LAFD's more than 1,500 Twitter followers can go to the official LAFP communications blog for the unabridged message. The LAFD, like many government agencies, also uses TwitterMail, which lets users send e-mails that are also posted to Twitter.
Police departments find value in Twitter, too. For instance, the Portland (Ore.) Police Department tweets about crime reports and sometimes asks the public for leads in cold cases: "Child abuse team seeks witnesses in continuing investigation. If you have any info plz contact detectives."
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) updates its feed with traffic alerts and route changes for ferry vessels. But Twitter has a larger purpose for WSDOT: It helps continuity of operations, according to WSDOT spokesman Lloyd Brown.
"In an emergency, people will come to our Web site, en masse to the point that it overwhelms our servers - we've had that happen during snowstorms and other major weather events," Brown said. Because the Web site is a popular source of traffic updates, sometimes it can't handle a spike in page hits, he said. During an emergency, WSDOT is considering the option of posting a bare-bones version of its Web site that contains a Web link to the Twitter feed.
"One of the things we're considering if we get into an emergency situation like that, we can update Twitter and our blog with our handheld BlackBerry, iPhone or