Dutch researchers have developed a system that will allow emergency service workers to get all the information they need to respond to an emergency from Twitter. The application will be presented at the World Wide Web 2012 conference in the French city of Lyon later this week.
The application is called Twitcident and was created by an Amsterdam company in collaboration with researchers at the University of Delft and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). The researchers created an algorithm that finds and filters all the relevant tweets sent during a major incident.
When a major disaster occurs, people start tweeting about it immediately. Most of the tweets don't contain anything relevant or are a re-tweet of an earlier item. However, some tweets do have information that would be of use to the police, the fire service, ambulance workers or search and rescue teams.
Twitcident gathers the useful information and publishes it on a website. This allows the emergency services to quickly access information about the nature of the incident, the location, the number of victims and the state of roads leading to the site. The emergency services will be able to get a better idea about the situation through maps, photos and statistics on the Twitcident site.
Fabian Abel, one of Twitcident's developers, says filtering the relevant and important information out of the welter of tweets is the real challenge: "Of course, there is a huge difference between someone saying that he burnt his tongue or saying that the house burnt down. But the system is intelligent enough differentiate between the two tweets."
The system can be used anywhere in the world for any kind of emergency, including earthquakes, floods or riots. Organisers of large events and festivals can also use the system. At the end of this month, the system will be put to the test during Queen's Day in the Netherlands. Hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets on the Dutch national holiday and many of them will have had one or two beers. Twitcident could prove useful in keeping an eye on things.
An algorithm that filters Twitter feeds could be a tool of oppression in the hands of authoritarian regimes; it could be used to monitor political opponents and crackdown on dissent. Fabian Abel: "I don't think that the system is open to abuse. It just doesn't work like that. We only put the algorithm to work after the authorities or emergency services contact us and ask us to monitor an incident. We want this to work for public safety; it's something we've developed to help save lives during major accidents or disasters."