As many as 400 fires were identified in Victoria on February 7, 2010. These resulted in Australia’s highest ever loss of life from a bushfire; 173 people were killed and over 400 injured. This analysis of 1,684 tweets generated during these fires found that they were “laden with actionable factual information which contrasts with earlier claims that tweets are of no value made of mere random personal notes.”
Of the 705 unique users who exchanged tweets during the fires, only two could be considered “official sources of communication”; both accounts were held by ABC Radio Melbourne. “This demonstrates the lack of state or government based initiatives to use social media tools for official communication purposes. Perhaps the growth in Twitter usage for political campaigns will force policy makers to reconsider.” In any event, about 65% of the tweets had “factual details,” i.e., “more than three of every five tweets had useful information.” In addition, “Almost 22% of the tweets had geographical data thus identifying location of the incident which is critical in crisis reporting.” Around 7% of the tweets were see-king information, help or answers. Finally, close to 5% (about 80 tweets) were “directly actionable.”
While 5% is obviously low, there’s no reason why this figure has to remain this low. If humanitarian organizations were to create demand for posting actionable information on Twitter, this would likely increase the supply of more actionable content. Take for example the pro-active role taken by the Philippines Govern-ment vis-a-vis the use of Twitter for disaster response. In any case, the findings from the above study do reveal that 65% of tweets had useful information. Surely contacting the publishers of those tweets could produce even more directly actionable content—which is why the BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub (UGC) uses follow-up as strategy to verify content posted on social media.
Finally, keep in mind that calls to emergency numbers like “911” in the US and “000” in Australia are not spontaneously actionable. That is, human operators who handle these emergency calls ask a series of detailed questions in order to turn the information into structured, actionable content. Some of these standard questions are: What is your emergency? What is your current location? What is your phone number? What is happening? When did the incident occur? Are there injuries? etc. In other words, without being prompted with specific questions, callers are unlikely to provide as much actionable information. The same is true for the use of twitter in crisis response.