Every once in a while, I have an “aha” moment where I’m blown away by an unsuspected use or combination of technologies.
Prior to yesterday, the last such moment was when I heard my son shouting in French while playing alone in his room on a new game console: “Cache-toi derriere le rocher … tire, tire, tire!” (“Hide beind the rock, shoot, shoot, shoot”). Had he gone crazy, I thought? Then it clicked. I knew the console was Internet connected. I knew it had a bluetooth headset. I knew it supported multi-player games. And I knew he spoke French. It had just never occurred to me that it would all come together such that he’d end up playing videogames with kids in France and talking to them while so doing.
Yesterday, I had a similar moment while I was talking to a friend with family in Japan. We discussed the recent earthquake and she told me the following story.
We were on Twitter that night and suddenly the Japanese Twittersphere lit up with tweets about the earthquake. So we called our family and got through to them while the earthquake was still in progress. As it got stronger the line got cut, but were nevertheless really happy that we spoke as, after that, we couldn’t get through on the phone lines for at least 12 hours.”
This blew me away. Think about that. Someone can tweet about an earthquake as it hits, you can get the tweet 5000 miles away and call your friend while the earthquake’s still happening. In fact, once I really started to think about it, I realized that you can actually call your friend before the earthquake arrives if he is far enough from the epicenter.
Seismic waves travel at 4 km/second plus or minus. I don’t know what Twitter’s latency is, but let’s assume it’s 5 seconds. Recall that an earthquake’s duration is related to its size (i.e., big earthquakes last longer) and that a major earthquake might last 60 to 90 seconds. Consider this scenario:
- You are working at your computer in San Diego
- An earthquake strikes epicentered in San Diego and you recognize that in 5 seconds
- You tweet it
- 5 seconds later that tweet gets to a friend in New York City, some 3000 miles away
- Your friend calls your brother in San Luis Obispo and warns him of the earthquake, figure that takes another 10 seconds
- At this point the waves have traveled 80 km. They have another 180 km to go before they hit San Luis Obispo
- You have given your friend 45 seconds advance notice of the earthquake
Recall, I’m earthquake geek since I majored in geophysics and worked during school at the Center for Computational Seismology at Lawrence Berkeley Lab (LBL). At LBL, one of the grad students I supported was working on a related question — could you, given the first few seconds of waves, tell if an earthquake was going to be big or little? Was there something different about big earthquakes that you could quickly detect and then potentially alert critical facilities? Sadly, for my friend’s dissertation, the answer was basically no.
But I think with Twitter, we’re darn close. After every earthquake I race to Twitter to be the first to tweet it — and I never win. So I believe that Twitter is a near instantaneous earthquake detection system and with geocoded tweets I am certain that you can easily locate an earthquake and its size / scariness (i.e., intensity). Think: sentiment analysis on “OMG that was huge #EQ in SF. #scary.”
I picked San Luis Obispo in my example above for a reason. There’s a nuclear reactor there. Hopefully, some grad student is trying to pick up where my friend left off and instead of analyzing the first few seconds of p-waves, they’re analyzing twitter feeds instead.
[Revised: rewrote introductory aside again for brevity and clarity]