Earthquake!!! Twitter Gets the Scoop

Categories: Tech
As any S.F. resident who has a Twitter account may know, a magnitude 4.1 earthquake occurred near Milpitas, CA at 10:09 AM today. Having worked next to a freeway overpass in Los Angeles, we are prone to second guessing ourselves when the earth starts shaking. This morning before we could finish our "Was it or wasn't it?" thought, we saw this tweet from SF Weekly Music Editor Jennifer Maerz:

Screen shot 2010-01-07 at 1.30.14 PM.png

Earthquakes are the ultimate geo-local shared experience and, in a forward thinking move, the U.S. Geological Survey is now scouring Twitter for information, going as far as setting up a Twitter account themselves, because as USGS Seismologist Paul Earle told the SF Weekly "People like to tweet after earthquakes" -- a fact especially true in tech-savvy San Francisco.

According to Earle, the tweet that broke today's quake was simply "Earthquake!!!" and it was timestamped 10 seconds after the event. USGS is still working out the kinks in their social media strategy and were not able to parlay any information about the Twitter account or even a link to the tweet -- which is now buried under the pagination limit (30) of both the Twitter search site and the Twitter search API.

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Map via @usgsted

Because breaking tweets hit Twitter immediately after an earthquake and it takes the USGS instruments about two minutes to come up with a location and magnitude, Earle hinted at the possible creation of a USGS Twitter account that actually re-tweets the first quake tweets supplementing the current tweet maps provided by @usgsted.

"There's a big difference between someone tweeting and giving information about the magnitude and location of the quake," Earle says. While in California the lag between Twitter and scientists is the aforementioned two minutes, in other parts of the world it can take up to 20 minutes for data to come through. In these locations a Twitter report can give you an initial heads up which then can be substantiated by scientific information, preventing a mix-up with an earthquake drill for example.

 Google Realtime Search indexed today's reports six minutes after the quake at 10:15, yet the first tweet happened 10 seconds after the event according to the USGS. Moral of the story, follow people with itchy Twitter fingers and a good sense of balance.

Update. A reader sent in this link to what could possibly be the first tweet,  from user @unitybelle.

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You can follow us on Twitter at @alexiat and @sfweekly.
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