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Is Twitter an Earthquake Detector?

FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

TORONTO – Twitter lit up Monday morning as L.A.-area residents took to social media to share their experience of the 4.4 magnitude earthquake that shook residents from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach.

Though the earthquake was minor, and there were no immediate reports of injury or damages, news of the earthquake spread quickly on Twitter – due, in part, to how many celebrities tweeted about the quake.

As one Twitter user said, “You don’t realize how many celebrities you follow until there is an earthquake in L.A.”

Twitter has been a popular tool in getting the word out about earthquakes in the past.

Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Twitter was a go-to source for advisories, updates and harrowing firsthand accounts.

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But, can Twitter detect earthquakes?

Not really, but turns out scientists working for the U.S. Geological Survey think it – not official channels — may be the fastest way to find out about them, and get the word out.

In an exploratory effort, the USGS began funding a student “Twitter Earthquake Detector“ project developing a system that “gathers real-time, earthquake-related messages from the social networking site Twitter and applies place, time, and key word filtering to gather geo-located accounts of shaking.

The approach provides rapid first-impression narratives and, potentially, photos from people at the hazard’s location.” It might also allow for better detection in regions that are well populated but lack seismic detectors. Updates are provided under @USGTed Twitter account.

Twitter has been credited with toppling dictators, now can it save lives in natural disasters?

According to the USGS, social media is faster than any official means at getting the word out when disaster strikes. “People local to an event are able to publish information via these technologies within seconds of their occurrence. In contrast, depending on the location of the earthquake, scientific alerts can take between 2 to 20 minutes.”

In another example, a blogger has created a mashup showing realtime earthquake tweets happening in and around Tokyo, Japan.

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By adopting and embracing these new technologies, the USGS thinks it can potentially augment its earthquake response and the delivery of hazard information.

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