In a disaster, the real-time, social web wins again

morel haiti on Twitpic
@photomorel on Twitpic

By now, I’m sure just about everyone knows about the earthquake that hit Haiti late yesterday afternoon. Personally, I learned about it within a minute or two of the USGS announcing it through a tweet. Out of old habits I flipped over to to get details, there was of course nothing there yet, and wouldn’t be for 5-10 minutes.

I was personally concerned as I had a friend who was in Haiti this past week and was due to leave yesterday. I checked his twitter stream but all his feed said was that he was getting ready to head home – nothing about actually catching a flight or leaving. I, of course, wanted to know more.

The quest for information led me to a few interesting features, or rather interesting uses of existing features, on Facebook and Twitter that I hadn’t considered before:

  1. Geofenced Twitter Search
  2. Automatic Translation of Search Results
  3. The Facebook Wall as a rallying point

Geofenced Twitter Search

Now that everyone has search enabled either in their Twitter web interface or third-party app of choice I think many have just plain forgotten about Twitter Search at The problem with Twitter’s basic search yesterday was it was initially just everybody and their uncle retweeting the basic USGS earthquake notification. Literally page after page of the same words being tweeted by people around the world.
But, over on you can drop into Advanced Search and then a whole suite of new tools become available to you – most importantly, in this case, the ability to limit your search geographically.


Now, with one quick search you’re able to filter out much of the noise and start to get a sense of who’s online down there and what they’re seeing/experiencing. Interestingly enough there appeared to be some level of connectivity down there, even amongst the chaos, as last night there were several twitter accounts that were providing updates on themselves and what they were seeing.


Automatic Translation of Search Results

FliD76AAnd here’s where another challenge popped up. As with anything international, many tweets weren’t in English. It’s actually quite easy to forget online that not everything is in English. I’ve blogged before about how language is the final barrier that we need to overcome for us to be able to seamlessly share all of our information with everyone else.

Now the premise of this feature isn’t anything new. Google Translate, and before that Babelfish, have been around for ages and you could easily feed your content to it and get it translated. What was new to me though, was a link right in the twitter search that let me set Google Translate loose on the page – and it was implemented perfectly. Many may not realize but Google can actually detect the source language in many cases now, so even though there was a mix of languages (i.e. English, French and Spanish) on the page, it could pick out what wasn’t in English, detect which language it was and then provide me with a translated result right in the Twitter Search page.

For example:

The Facebook Wall as a Rallying Point

Now, both of the features above, while excellent for getting some idea about what is going on in a specific area, gave me no info on the friend who I was concerned about. That’s where I turned to Facebook. Knowing he was also on Facebook and tended to update it in addition to twitter I thought there might be some additional information there.  While it did provide me clues as to where abouts in the country he might be (previous status messages mentioned where he was volunteering etc.), there was no further updates beyond the same “getting ready to head home” message.

I didn’t really think anything of it as I left a “hope you’re ok” message on his wall but in reality what was happening was the wall was turning into a small rallying point for anyone who was concerned about him. This is interesting as the Facebook wall is one of those few places where people who have no connection to a person, other than the person themselves can find each other and share information.


As you can see by the image above, my friend Patrick was thankfully wheels-up on his flight home and safe when the quake happened but I have no doubt that in a worst-case situation this thread would quickly have turned into a much more significant place for people to get information and offer help/resources. And of course by commenting on the wall it also turned on email notifications for it so I even got real-time updates on my blackberry so while I was sitting in an condo board meeting I got the last message you see posted there, that my friend was safe.

In Conclusion

Many of these features are nothing new, what struck me as interesting though was how quickly there uses quickly shifted in the context of a real-time evolving event. There’s absolutely no question that the real-time web is changing the relationship between us and the media. Before this would have been a worrisome evening in front of the TV while waiting for CNN to get additional information.

Oh yeah, about the same time I got the message from the wall that my friend was safe, CNN had it’s first images from Haiti. The source? Facebook.

(but I’d already seen them ~15 minutes earlier on twitter)