Twitter Tweak Helps Haiti Relief Effort
A short message service (SMS) syntax called Tweak the Tweet (TtT) is aiding relief efforts in earthquake-ravaged Haiti. This microsyntax helps parse the information coming from Haiti's limited communication infrastructure into a structure that can be used for planning action.
Colorado University PhD student Kate Starbird developed TtT in November as a part of research on Twitter uses in disasters, such as the US 2009 Red River floods. TtT is designed to help make actionable sense of natural language tweets in close to real time. It's being supported in part by Project EPIC (Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis), which received a $2.8 million grant from the US National Science Foundation to improve the uses of social networking tools during crises.
Few Haitians have the Internet access they would need to set up a Twitter account. Currently, most messages are sent over the radio in Creole. Volunteers in Haiti are also sending SMS messages to a free phone number that Haitian cell-phone providers set up. TtT provides a way of structuring these messages so they can be parsed automatically, Starbird said.
Volunteers around the world are taking this raw information and entering it into crisis-management databases that can direct help to the right place and connect friends and family with victims. "Though we did not foresee this," Starbird said, "the major users of the syntax have been Twitter volunteers who have worked to translate tweets coming from the ground and information from other sources into the syntax. This crowd-sourcing activity extends the possibility for a syntax like this during other, future events."
Parsing the Deluge
Leysia Palen, director of Project EPIC, said that Twitter has emerged as a valuable communication tool during crises because it lets people who have only a cell phone share information. But to be useful, the information must be structured.
One way to establish a structure is to use computational techniques that make the real-time communications available to other applications. Ideally, some kind of natural-language-processing tool could automatically translate real-time communications into a database structure. But because online communications syntax isn't standardized, Palen explained, such tools are difficult to apply. TtT is an effort to provide a structure to Twitter communications so the information can be automatically processed.
"Promoting a structured format turns a deluge of information into a stream of data that can be auto-triaged and routed to appropriate organizations," said Jacob Rothstein, multisite technical coordinator for TtT. Because Twitter's API is open, any number of agencies or organizations can capture the data most appropriate to their missions, allowing for easier interoperability. The current implementation targets push mechanisms for feeding data to other systems and XML-based, open API pull mechanisms for requests.
Rothstein said the TtT team is working on developing APIs for several crisis-management applications such as the Sahana Project, Ushahidi, and Google Person Finder. They are contacting relief and crisis-management organizations that could benefit from the TtT syntax. In the future, Rothstein hopes to support crowd sourcing and collaborative filtering via a voting mechanism to handle tweets that can't be parsed into the syntax.
Simple Codes Extend Twitter Apps
Military communications have used microsyntaxes for some time, according to Stowe Boyd, founder of Microsyntax.org. The group is working to develop communications code standards for a variety of application domains, such as health and crisis management.
Microsyntaxes make it easier for mobile devices to share structured information with applications. For example, Microsyntax.org is helping to develop the Open Mobile Health Exchange syntax for enabling patients to communicate their vital signs to a caregiver. "People are starting to implement machines that would communicate with the world by posting status updates," Boyd said. "Health manufacturers want to be able to develop devices that can communicate data such as weight, heart rate, and other measurements to a doctor in real time."
The first use of Twitter communication codes was the "@" sign to indicate a message was about a person. Twitter users subsequently adopted the hash symbol to indicate that a message contained information about an event or place. Boyd said the first use of hash tags in a crisis was in the San Diego fire in 2007.
Boyd said that international emergency codes could benefit from a wider symbol vocabulary — for example, an exclamation point to indicate an emergency. After things have calmed down in Haiti, Microsyntax.org plans to work with other organizations, such as EPIC, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Red Cross, to develop a consensus on syntax for future emergencies.
TtT isn't something carved in stone, Starbird said. "After evaluating our own use, and observing the initial users struggle with the syntax's rigidity, and receiving feedback from others in the microsyntax community, we made some small but significant changes to the syntax." She sees TtT as a starting point for learning how to communicate during a natural disaster.
For more information, see the official TtT home page at http://epic.cs.colorado.edu/helping_haiti_tweak_the_twe.html. The Tweak the Tweet editor, which demonstrates syntax, is available at http://disaster.cs.colorado.edu/haiti.
To learn more about microsyntax standardization efforts, see http://microsyntax.org.
George Lawton is a freelance technology writer based in Monte Rio, California. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.