An Amazing Story about Twitter and the Japan Earthquake

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]

42 responses to “An Amazing Story about Twitter and the Japan Earthquake

  1. Cool aha moment and nice idea, but USGS beat you to it!

  2. I’m quite positive this actually happened during an earthquake in LA in 2008 or so – I remember a story about someone reading about it on Twitter before she felt the earthquake herself.

  3. What can you do in the 45 seconds to avoid a meltdown?

    • At certain critical facilities, 45 seconds is a lot of time, I’m told. As I recall being told by my friend who was doing the research that facilities like nuclear reactors, hospitals, airports and others could get great benefit from even 45 to 60 seconds advance notice. While some folks worry about creating mass scenes of hysteria (e.g., in a football stadium), others believe there are great benefits (and lives to be saved) by providing advance notice.

  4. It is amazing how flat the world has become. I think as technology and social advances we will have more of those “aha” moments with our younger generations.

    I’d be interested to know a little more on what the Twittersphere erupting means… is that timeline interactions of your particular friends contacts or was it trending topics?

    So I assume they are connected to others in the region.

    Great post told in a story manner as well!

    It sounds like in this case it was and the network effect of connections.

  5. Hi Dave, you know, on this occasion, however freaking great Twitter is, and the ability to videocon with your friends, and friends of friends, via your (new) iPad, and even tell them to get the heck out of the way, it’s irrelevant. The loss of life, destruction, and chaos, is so much more overwhelming than even our great connected, and instant, world.

    Sometimes we need to think salutary, we can devise the most amazing tools for communication, analysis, information management, knowledge … but they are nothing when the earth we live on wants to throw a curve ball at us.


    • Yes, despite our technological advances Mother Nature does throw us curves and the root technological problem with earthquakes is that you can’t predict them — and for years and years, seismologists have tried.

      That is why the more practical approach is not to predict but to quickly detect and notify critical facilities to mitigate the damage and loss of life from earthquakes which account for six of the ten worst natural disasters of the past century.

  6. Pingback: An Amazing Story about Twitter and the Japan Earthquake (Dave Kellogg/Kellblog) |

  7. Hm. Sounds pretty exciting, but can you imagine what will happen if once in a while someone decides to play a prank on twitter. Things like that are already happening. :\

    • Good point. That would be very bad. As an optimist, I suspect it would be relatively easy to detect because you I doubt any prankster could get the volume of tweets required (though with botnets and such I probably shouldn’t speak too quickly). By the way, see the comment where someone provides a URL to a USGS funded project to do TED, the Twitter Earthquake Detector.

  8. :) interesting.. and how about setting up an EarthQuake account that tweets everytime an earthquake above a certain level occurs.

    • The USGS does Tweet earthquakes, I believe, but my perception is they take a few minutes because they want to calculate the Richter magnitude first. Tweets are instant because they are about “intensity” (i.e., what people feel). Richter magnitude is about how far the needles move on a Wood-Andersen seismograph.

  9. This point was also made recently in the comic XKCD, albeit a little humorously:

  10. Great idea. To generalize it, tweets can be taken as observations on events.

    Now we have to think about who (Twitter ID); when (timestamp of the tweet, not the event observed); and whose observation rules (ad-hoc, tag-shaped, etc.) I can imagine popularizing a set of emergency tags to do this).

    Someone out there suggested distinguishing those who observed events from those commenting about them. I don’t see any way to determine in advance whether a tweet is authentic or bogus/deceptive.

    • My guess is that while you can’t tell if an one tweet is real or false, when an earthquake happens there are literally thousands of tweets that happen in a very tight time window. I think that would be hard to simulate as a prank, but I suppose it would be possible. And then, even if you could generate a bunch of tweets at the right time, could you further detect that it was fraudulent simply by looking at who’s tweeting, how often they tweet, etc. That makes the problem much harder. And the big issue, I’d have is lack of economic incentive. It would cost a lot in my estimation to do such a ruse and to what benefit?

  11. A very interesting article regarding to the help that Twitter can give in a fast emergency situation! I have lived 1 mega earthquake in my life…it was when I was a little boy at Chile. It is a terrible experience where everything is moving and trembling with an ugly noise like a hurricane! The only thing that you think in that particular period of time ( 1 minute at least) it is as protect yourself and quit! You don’t have more time to do nothing…Just PRAY!
    Thanks for your post,,,have a good one!

  12. I never thought about twitter’s power in that sense before but look what is did for people revolting against their governments. It is also a great way to follow like minded people.

  13. Pingback: links for 2011-03-12 « steinarcarlsen

  14. I think we can buy them more than 45 seconds with the power of social media as a distribution channel and sensors delivering realtime updates to those channels (like Twitter) in real-time.

    During and after a crisis situation – html5 is a powerful distribution medium for delivering contextual and location aware information through a single and consistent channel. I have a vested interest having founded a company called CiviGuard – I urge you to check it out @

  15. We had a strong-ish earthquake in January across India, Pakistan, up to Dubai. It was at 2.45 am and I was working at my desk; the tremors lasted about 60-75 seconds and I tweeted about the quake post the first 20 seconds; I wasn’t even the first. A friend who lives 20 km away (in a low rise) and had felt the quake but at a different intensity from me (I live in a high-rise) evacuated her family from their home basis my tweet. It may have few tangible benefits yet but I can certainly see how it could.

  16. Pingback: Top Posts —

  17. In Japan, they actually have an Earthquake Early Warning system that analyses the first p-waves and estimates magnitude immediately prompting a country-wide warning if appropriate, that is immediately broadcast on radio and tv and also reaches critical decision centres.

    The few seconds given by the early warning are extremely useful to stop trains. control elevators, stop traffic, put off fires and prepare for the hit of the earthquake. And to a comment above that does not see the point of an early warning system: just a few seconds of advance notice are extremely valuable in save many lives, millions in Japan.

  18. we need take the latency (i.e. humans / twitter) completely out of the equation.

    create a network of seismological sensors throughout all earthquake-prone areas, and give them wireless connectivity to each other and to a computer “nerve center.” (i don’t know what USGS already has set up, but this is what it should be.)

    the instant an event occurs, any sensor that detects it should electronically notify relevant facilities and individuals in its vicinity and the environs, to the farthest extent of possible impact. the larger the event, the wider the notification should be propagated.

    interested individuals could also sign up to receive (“follow”) alerts (via SMS, twitter, etc.) that pertain to them.

    everyone is informed, everyone has the maximum possible time to prepare.

    • I agree that we could reduce the human latency but my general sense is that seismologists were more concerned with calculating the Richter magnitude than getting the word out. Peopel like broadcasting the “intensity” quick (not easily measured with a sensor by the way, because the intensity scale is defined in terms of reaction (e.g., people run out of buildings), but yes, I generally agree with your idea and believe it should be possible. As you can see from one of the other comments, apparently they have built something like this in Japan already and they apparently do some early estimation of the anticipated magnitude, but I don’t know how. Thanks for your comment.

  19. Pingback: An Amazing Story about Twitter and the Japan Earthquake | Kellblog

  20. The story about your kid learning how to speak French (or maybe just swear in French) while playing online games with other kids around the world is pretty amazing.

    • Sorry. He *already* spoke French. I just didn’t imagine him ever using it during a video game playing with other kids. The blow away part was realizing after I bought a Internet-connected game console that he’d end up playing with kids in France and speaking with him. The two things that had never occurred to me was that it had Bluetooth and a voice connection and that his fellow players would b worldwide. Both are pretty obvious now, but this was 5 years ago and it did catch me by surprise. I knew all the pieces were in place, I just never thought about them comign together.

  21. hmmm, an example of using technology for GOOD!I wonder if anyone has thought of using animal behavior for earthquakes? I remember reading a while back that more animals get lost and birds can also sense…I think it’s especially important because SFO (SanFrancisco) is prone to them..Here’s another coincidence St. Francis was the patron saint of animals and SanFranciso is spanish for St. Francis’!;)
    Another thing to be kept in mind is the sunspot cycle..increasing sunspots disrupts all kinds of communications (esp emergency radios), and also results in extra radiation….usually it used to increase every 9 years but I’m not sure anymore if this is true;)

    • They say it can be done, but since no one knows why some animals seem able to predict earthquakes they’re not sure how to replicated it. Some think they sense gases that get pre-released, for example, but no one’s proven anything.

  22. In fact someone had already thought about it :P:

  23. The @USGSted account did her last tweet 6 months ago! Hope they will improve on responsetimes…

  24. Pingback: Top Posts —

  25. Pingback: Japan’s Post Earthquake Situation Is Worsening [8 Bells] | The Walrus Says

  26. Pingback: Una historia del potencial de Twitter para alertar sobre emergencias « Facultad Sociales UTE

  27. Pingback: The Drill Down 177 - Streaming Is Not a Crime | The Drill Down

  28. “Cache-toi derriere le rocher … tire, tire, tire!”

    tire : Impératif 3ème personne du verbe tirer.

  29. Pingback: Geen verrassingen meer dankzij Twitter « Dossier Japan

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.