Saving lives with online communications

A new approach to social media called “Tweak the Tweet,” conceived by CU-Boulder graduate student Kate Starbird and deployed by members of CU’s Project EPIC research group and colleagues around the nation, helped Haiti relief efforts by providing standardized syntax for Twitter communications.

Through consistent use of specially placed keywords, or “hashtags,” in Twitter posts to communicate critical information such as location, status, and road conditions, the “Tweak the Tweet” approach made information computationally easier to extract and collate.

“Project EPIC has done extensive research on the use of Twitter and other social media during disasters,” said Starbird, a National Science Foundation graduate fellow who is pursuing her doctorate in technology, media and society in CU’s ATLAS program. “A slight change to current Twitter behavior allows the platform to be used as a broad-reaching crisis communication tool for anyone with access.”

Starbird conceived of the “Tweak the Tweet” idea with Jeannie Stamberger of Mountain View, California, at a national hacker competition in 2009. A group of eight CU-Boulder students and professors worked alongside dozens of colleagues nationwide to develop and diffuse the syntax across the Twitter community immediately following the Haiti earthquake. The group members have tweaked hundreds of help messages on Twitter into the standardized syntax to fuel adoption by others and have built a bilingual instructional website.

Starbird said the project has been a way for computer scientists, who would otherwise feel helpless, to contribute to relief efforts.