CU-developed Android app helps people tweet during disasters

September 28, 2011 •

Just as codes once were developed for public safety communication via citizens band radios, a common language now is being formulated for disaster communication via Twitter -- posing a challenge for people who haven't yet learned or can't recall it.

Daniel Schaefer, a University of Colorado Boulder doctoral student in communication, recently created a solution to this problem in the form of a software application, or app, for mobile devices. It turns everyday language into a Twitter syntax used during disasters through a special smart phone keyboard.

"Twitter has become popular during disasters because it offers a concise and efficient communication medium," said Schaefer, who was inspired by the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire near Boulder. "However, a need to standardize the syntaxes used on Twitter has surfaced particularly for the emergency personnel, affected individuals, concerned loved ones, information officers and journalists who use it to provide and monitor information and collaborate on rescue efforts."

The free app, called the Bucket Brigade Keyboard, is designed for Android devices. It transforms the standard smart phone keyboard display into a keypad of 12 message choices such as "help," "location" and "request." When these messages are selected, corresponding tweets -- about one's status, needs and offers to help -- are queued for posting online.

"In a disaster, communication and working together can save lives," said Schaefer. "Just as a bucket brigade fills and passes buckets of water to help put out a fire, this app allows people to fill and pass buckets of tweets to help during a disaster."

The syntax used in Schaefer's app -- which turns an "I'm Ok" key into "#imok" -- is based on a concept devised in 2009 by doctoral student Kate Starbird of CU's Project EPIC (Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis) research group. The streamlining of disaster-related Twitter communication through Starbird's idea, called "Tweak the Tweet," makes the information computationally easier to extract and collate, which can help connect people with needs to responders.

Nearly 3,000 tweets using the Tweak the Tweet syntax were posted in the weeks following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. More than 500 tweets using the syntax were posted in the wake of the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo.

During those instances, users manually entered text that now can be deployed with the touch of a button through the Bucket Brigade Keyboard.

The app not only empowers people with a standard language, but also is designed for convenience using accessible technology, according to Schaefer.

"People are going to be holding smart phones during disasters," he said. "They're not going to be going to laptop computers or cafés with time to look up the syntax."

Schaefer entered the Bucket Brigade Keyboard in the Federal Communications Commission's Apps for Communities contest. The challenge calls for apps that help local government deliver quality-of-life-improving information to populations that are typically disenfranchised or disconnected from broadband communications.

The Bucket Brigade Keyboard has been downloaded in 20 countries.

Schaefer says a planned update to the Bucket Brigade Keyboard will add more Twitter shortcuts to the app, as well as auto-fill and auto-correction features.

For more information on the Bucket Brigade Keyboard visit market.android.com/details?id=com.bucketbrigade.softkeyboard&feature=search_result. For information on the Apps for Communities challenge visit appsforcommunities.challenge.gov/.

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