Twitter finds another use for its data: earthquake maps

Steven Loeb · May 3, 2014 · Short URL:

Twitter and Stanford scientists team to create quicker, and more accurate, maps of where quakes hit

It might be silly to even say this now that Twitter is a public company, but I believe that the days of it being thought of as something superfluous are pretty much dead. I mean, they kind of have to be, right?

I mean, yeah, you can still use it to see celebrities like Kanye West and Justin Bieber flip out and make asses out of themselves. And there's nothing wrong with it if you do. But there have been so many other, better uses for it, from helping to foster revolutions in countries like Iran anf Egypt, to getting emergency evacuation information out during natural disasters, that it seems outdated to focus on the silly side of it. 

The latest example of that is the partnership between Twitter and Stanford researchers to better detect earthquakes.

Using Twitter data, they will be able to create more accurate ShakeMaps, which provide "near-real-time maps of ground motion and shaking intensity following significant earthquakes."

Right now, ShakeMaps are produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and are produced by using "a combination of recordings, a simple ground motion prediction equation, and geological site correction factors."

The maps are then continuously updated through first hand accounts that are collected from online surveys. Basically, people are asked "did you feel the quake?" Obviously, Twitter is able to get that information in a much quicker fashion since they can see who tweeted about it right as it was happening. 

"To help improve the accuracy of ShakeMaps, we used all geo-tagged Tweets around the world containing the keyword 'earthquake' or 'tsunami' in several languages that occurred in the first 10 minutes following Japanese earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater from 2011 to 2012," said Twitter.

"We found that the model with lowest error was based on a combination of earthquake and Tweet-based features, such as local site conditions, source-to-site distance, and the number of Tweets within a certain radius."

So, like during the Japanese quake, Twitter generated eight tweet-based features as they related in distance to a recording station: count of Tweets, average number of tokens, average number of characters, average index of first mention of an earthquake keyword, average number of appearances of earthquake keywords, average number of exclamation points, average number of dashes, and average number of appearances of a selected Japanese keyword. 

Twitter says that its ground shaking intensity estimates from its model are comparable with the data that is produced by the ShakeMaps. 

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What is Twitter?

Twitter is an online information network that allows anyone with an account to post 140 character messages, called tweets. It is free to sign up. Users then follow other accounts which they are interested in, and view the tweets of everyone they follow in their "timeline." Most Twitter accounts are public, where one does not need to approve a request to follow, or need to follow back. This makes Twitter a powerful "one to many" broadcast platform where individuals, companies or organizations can reach millions of followers with a single message. Twitter is accessible from, our mobile website, SMS, our mobile apps for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, our iPad application, or 3rd party clients built by outside developers using our API. Twitter accounts can also be private, where the owner must approve follower requests. 

Where did the idea for Twitter come from?

Twitter started as an internal project within the podcasting company Odeo. Jack Dorsey, and engineer, had long been interested in status updates. Jack developed the idea, along with Biz Stone, and the first prototype was built in two weeks in March 2006 and launched publicly in August of 2006. The service grew popular very quickly and it soon made sense for Twitter to move outside of Odea. In May 2007, Twitter Inc was founded.

How is Twitter built?

Our engineering team works with a web application framework called Ruby on Rails. We all work on Apple computers except for testing purposes. 

We built Twitter using Ruby on Rails because it allows us to work quickly and easily--our team likes to deploy features and changes multiple times per day. Rails provides skeleton code frameworks so we don't have to re-invent the wheel every time we want to add something simple like a sign in form or a picture upload feature.

How do you make money from Twitter?

There are a few ways that Twitter makes money. We have licensing deals in place with Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft's Bing to give them access to the "firehose" - a stream of tweets so that they can more easily incorporate those tweets into their search results.

In Summer 2010, we launched our Promoted Tweets product. Promoted Tweets are a special kind of tweet which appear at the top of search results within, if a company has bid on that keyword. Unlike search results in search engines, Promoted Tweets are normal tweets from a business, so they are as interactive as any other tweet - you can @reply, favorite or retweet a Promoted Tweet. 

At the same time, we launched Promoted Trends, where companies can place a trend (clearly marked Promoted) within Twitter's Trending Topics. These are especially effective for upcoming launches, like a movie or album release.

Lastly, we started a Twitter account called @earlybird where we partner with other companies to provide users with a special, short-term deal. For example, we partnered with Virgin America for a special day of fares on that were only accessible through the link in the @earlybird tweet.


What's next for Twitter?

We continue to focus on building a product that provides value for users. 

We're building Twitter, Inc into a successful, revenue-generating company that attracts world-class talent with an inspiring culture and attitude towards doing business.