Using Twitter to report on SoCal fires

Cell phone networks are overwhelmed in San Diego and other parts of southern California as residents thoughtlessly make voice calls to alert relatives of their condition, W. David Stephenson, a homeland security consultant, says.

Cell phone networks are overwhelmed in San Diego and other parts of southern California as residents thoughtlessly make voice calls to alert relatives of their condition, W. David Stephenson, a homeland security consultant, says.

"Every time we have a disaster, people use their phones inappropriately," he said.

What's appropriate is text messaging, not voice - and in fact Stephenson reported that San Diego has temporarily banned voice use of cells.

Individuals and media are flocking to Twitter as a way to get the word out, Wired reports.

"Basically, every channel of information I have from the outside world is being funneled into my Twitter feed," says Ritter, a web developer and blogger.

Acting as an ad hoc news aggregator of sorts, Nate is currently sitting in his home in San Diego's University Town Center neighborhood watching broadcast television news, listening to local radio reports and monitoring streaming video on the web. He's also collecting instant messages, SMS text messages and e-mails from friends in the area and posting everything to his Twitter account.

Also posting to Twitter, Flickr and blogs: KPBS, San Diego's public radio station.

KPBS managing online editor Leng Caloh says she and her co-workers had been "playing around" with Twitter, using it for internal communications for several weeks. But as the danger from the fires grew over the weekend, web traffic at KPBS.org swelled to 36 times the normal amount.

"We got so much traffic on Monday that our server got overloaded," says Caloh. "Everything went down, including our RSS feed. At that point, I said 'Forget it -- it's going to be all about Twitter and Google Maps now,' because they aren't served by us and they were still working."

Stephenson also told Wired that using Twitter to spread the word about road conditions and evacuation alerts is:

" nowhere near as important as using Twitter to let your family know you're ok (instead of cell calls, which every time they're used in disasters end up crashing the network -- and don't get through, either): because they're packet based, they're cued up until they can route around obstacles or gaps in the network, and the 140-character limit means they take up a tiny amount of bandwidth, leaving it for those who need it most.

He also called for communities to set up Wikis in preparation for disaster:

"One of the worst things in a disaster is to continue to distribute out-of-date information," he noted, adding that wikis are ideally suited for getting in information from many sources and being able to edit and update it.

"We need to start having communities create an on-the-shelf Wiki that they can quickly populate with specific information," Stephenson added. "Each of us may know some tiny piece of the pie and then others can update this information." But, of course, the I.T. work has to be done before the disaster strikes.

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