Government Technology

Governments use Twitter for Emergency Alerts, Traffic Notices and More



January 7, 2009 By

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.

Emergency Notification and Continuity

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."

 

Unexpected Applications

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


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Comments

dslunceford    |    Commented January 6, 2009

If you'd like a listing of government agencies and employees using Twitter and other social media, try http://govtwit.com, which has identified hundreds of federal, state and local government Twitter IDs.

dslunceford    |    Commented January 6, 2009

If you'd like a listing of government agencies and employees using Twitter and other social media, try http://govtwit.com, which has identified hundreds of federal, state and local government Twitter IDs.

dslunceford    |    Commented January 6, 2009

If you'd like a listing of government agencies and employees using Twitter and other social media, try http://govtwit.com, which has identified hundreds of federal, state and local government Twitter IDs.

Jeffrey Levy    |    Commented January 6, 2009

Hi Matt. Thanks for the coverage! I did write about Twitter in EPA's blog, Greenversations (http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/11/07/twitterers-speak-up/), and since then we've picked up 50 Twitter followers/week. We're up to 759. I'm also now tweeting myself about social media and government: http://twitter.com/levyj413 Finally, there's a large and growing list of gov't Twitterers. Still mostly twitterfeed type stuff, but some people, too: http://newthinking.bearingpoint.com/2008/11/20/govtwit-directory/

Jeffrey Levy    |    Commented January 6, 2009

Hi Matt. Thanks for the coverage! I did write about Twitter in EPA's blog, Greenversations (http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/11/07/twitterers-speak-up/), and since then we've picked up 50 Twitter followers/week. We're up to 759. I'm also now tweeting myself about social media and government: http://twitter.com/levyj413 Finally, there's a large and growing list of gov't Twitterers. Still mostly twitterfeed type stuff, but some people, too: http://newthinking.bearingpoint.com/2008/11/20/govtwit-directory/

Jeffrey Levy    |    Commented January 6, 2009

Hi Matt. Thanks for the coverage! I did write about Twitter in EPA's blog, Greenversations (http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/11/07/twitterers-speak-up/), and since then we've picked up 50 Twitter followers/week. We're up to 759. I'm also now tweeting myself about social media and government: http://twitter.com/levyj413 Finally, there's a large and growing list of gov't Twitterers. Still mostly twitterfeed type stuff, but some people, too: http://newthinking.bearingpoint.com/2008/11/20/govtwit-directory/

Marie from Kansas DOT    |    Commented January 7, 2009

Good article, thank you. There are also people from Kansas DOT on Twitter, providing traffic updates, and road and traffic conditions during weather events. WichitaKDOT appears to be the most popular at this time, but there are also KDOT Twitter users in the KC Metro, Topeka, and Garden City areas. This is a very practical use of Web 2.0 by government, with an eye toward keeping drivers updated and safe.

Marie from Kansas DOT    |    Commented January 7, 2009

Good article, thank you. There are also people from Kansas DOT on Twitter, providing traffic updates, and road and traffic conditions during weather events. WichitaKDOT appears to be the most popular at this time, but there are also KDOT Twitter users in the KC Metro, Topeka, and Garden City areas. This is a very practical use of Web 2.0 by government, with an eye toward keeping drivers updated and safe.

Marie from Kansas DOT    |    Commented January 7, 2009

Good article, thank you. There are also people from Kansas DOT on Twitter, providing traffic updates, and road and traffic conditions during weather events. WichitaKDOT appears to be the most popular at this time, but there are also KDOT Twitter users in the KC Metro, Topeka, and Garden City areas. This is a very practical use of Web 2.0 by government, with an eye toward keeping drivers updated and safe.

W. David Stephenson    |    Commented January 8, 2009

It's great that a very few gov. agencies are getting with the program and using Twitter and other social media in emergencies, but almost all of them are blissfully aware that WE will also use Twitter, Qik, Flickr, etc. in emergencies and that we could provide invaluable real-time, location-based situational awareness (I explain how to do this in my "21st-century disaster tips you WON'T hear from officials." IMHO, 2 things are needed: 1) consciousness-raising so that first responders will automatically monitor social media in disasters and 2) instructions from them on how to best use these applications -- and cell phones in general (i.e., texting instead of voice call) so we can really partner.

W. David Stephenson    |    Commented January 8, 2009

It's great that a very few gov. agencies are getting with the program and using Twitter and other social media in emergencies, but almost all of them are blissfully aware that WE will also use Twitter, Qik, Flickr, etc. in emergencies and that we could provide invaluable real-time, location-based situational awareness (I explain how to do this in my "21st-century disaster tips you WON'T hear from officials." IMHO, 2 things are needed: 1) consciousness-raising so that first responders will automatically monitor social media in disasters and 2) instructions from them on how to best use these applications -- and cell phones in general (i.e., texting instead of voice call) so we can really partner.

W. David Stephenson    |    Commented January 8, 2009

It's great that a very few gov. agencies are getting with the program and using Twitter and other social media in emergencies, but almost all of them are blissfully aware that WE will also use Twitter, Qik, Flickr, etc. in emergencies and that we could provide invaluable real-time, location-based situational awareness (I explain how to do this in my "21st-century disaster tips you WON'T hear from officials." IMHO, 2 things are needed: 1) consciousness-raising so that first responders will automatically monitor social media in disasters and 2) instructions from them on how to best use these applications -- and cell phones in general (i.e., texting instead of voice call) so we can really partner.

Mark Headd    |    Commented January 12, 2009

I think it's great that more and more public sector entities are using Twitter. I do think, however, that there is a very real need for standards to be developed to ensure that the use of Twitter (and other microblogging services) by governments is as effective and citizen-friendly as it can be. http://www.voiceingov.org/blog/?p=405

Mark Headd    |    Commented January 12, 2009

I think it's great that more and more public sector entities are using Twitter. I do think, however, that there is a very real need for standards to be developed to ensure that the use of Twitter (and other microblogging services) by governments is as effective and citizen-friendly as it can be. http://www.voiceingov.org/blog/?p=405

Mark Headd    |    Commented January 12, 2009

I think it's great that more and more public sector entities are using Twitter. I do think, however, that there is a very real need for standards to be developed to ensure that the use of Twitter (and other microblogging services) by governments is as effective and citizen-friendly as it can be. http://www.voiceingov.org/blog/?p=405

Matt Williams    |    Commented January 12, 2009

Thank you for all your input on this story. And if you have any case studies of government agencies using Twitter, please send them along to Government Technology. We always like hearing from our readers.

Matt Williams    |    Commented January 12, 2009

Thank you for all your input on this story. And if you have any case studies of government agencies using Twitter, please send them along to Government Technology. We always like hearing from our readers.

Matt Williams    |    Commented January 12, 2009

Thank you for all your input on this story. And if you have any case studies of government agencies using Twitter, please send them along to Government Technology. We always like hearing from our readers.

Victoria    |    Commented January 13, 2009

It's great to see that a social media micor-blogging network is being used in ways that can help save people and help in time of need!

Victoria    |    Commented January 13, 2009

It's great to see that a social media micor-blogging network is being used in ways that can help save people and help in time of need!

Victoria    |    Commented January 13, 2009

It's great to see that a social media micor-blogging network is being used in ways that can help save people and help in time of need!

SandwichINK    |    Commented January 15, 2009

I am thrilled to see this! I have to admit, I'm not too interested in random facts but I am VERY interested in being apprised of emergency info easily, along with being able to ck easily to find out about traffic problems. Thanks, too, to dslunceford for adding another link to find more sites that offer this! Great resource that I'll be bookmarking and passing on to my readers :)

SandwichINK    |    Commented January 15, 2009

I am thrilled to see this! I have to admit, I'm not too interested in random facts but I am VERY interested in being apprised of emergency info easily, along with being able to ck easily to find out about traffic problems. Thanks, too, to dslunceford for adding another link to find more sites that offer this! Great resource that I'll be bookmarking and passing on to my readers :)

SandwichINK    |    Commented January 15, 2009

I am thrilled to see this! I have to admit, I'm not too interested in random facts but I am VERY interested in being apprised of emergency info easily, along with being able to ck easily to find out about traffic problems. Thanks, too, to dslunceford for adding another link to find more sites that offer this! Great resource that I'll be bookmarking and passing on to my readers :)

Scott Pantall    |    Commented January 19, 2009

This is great!! I work as a 911 dispatcher and have been thinking of different ways public safety could use twitter and new technologies. It's great to see that it's being done!

Scott Pantall    |    Commented January 19, 2009

This is great!! I work as a 911 dispatcher and have been thinking of different ways public safety could use twitter and new technologies. It's great to see that it's being done!

Scott Pantall    |    Commented January 19, 2009

This is great!! I work as a 911 dispatcher and have been thinking of different ways public safety could use twitter and new technologies. It's great to see that it's being done!

@CoCreatr    |    Commented January 27, 2009

Ingenious use for cyberspace. If reliability is a given, Twitter could replace custom-made information solutions. Would that require utility status and subsidies? Anyway, thank you. The author of the recent "Ode to Twitter" did not know all this. http://tinyurl.com/twitterfanmail

@CoCreatr    |    Commented January 27, 2009

Ingenious use for cyberspace. If reliability is a given, Twitter could replace custom-made information solutions. Would that require utility status and subsidies? Anyway, thank you. The author of the recent "Ode to Twitter" did not know all this. http://tinyurl.com/twitterfanmail

@CoCreatr    |    Commented January 27, 2009

Ingenious use for cyberspace. If reliability is a given, Twitter could replace custom-made information solutions. Would that require utility status and subsidies? Anyway, thank you. The author of the recent "Ode to Twitter" did not know all this. http://tinyurl.com/twitterfanmail

Tracy Hopkins    |    Commented February 10, 2009

Hermosa Beach Neighborhood Watch uses Twitter (@saferhermosa) for many of the purposes listed. We hope to keep the lines of communication open both ways using Twitter during a crime, emergency or disaster.

Tracy Hopkins    |    Commented February 10, 2009

Hermosa Beach Neighborhood Watch uses Twitter (@saferhermosa) for many of the purposes listed. We hope to keep the lines of communication open both ways using Twitter during a crime, emergency or disaster.

Tracy Hopkins    |    Commented February 10, 2009

Hermosa Beach Neighborhood Watch uses Twitter (@saferhermosa) for many of the purposes listed. We hope to keep the lines of communication open both ways using Twitter during a crime, emergency or disaster.


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