Preparedness & Recovery

Earthquake Detection System Uses Twitter to Collect Accounts of Seismic Activity

The system pulls tweets into a database, allowing the USGS to generate a report on the data.

by Corey McKenna / November 24, 2009
San Francisco, CA, 10/01/89 -- A worker surveys the damage caused by the fire in San Francisco's Marina District after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. FEMA News Photo

A graduate student with the Colorado School of Mines in Golden and seismologists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are developing a system for tracking earthquakes using Twitter.

The Twitter Earthquake Detector (TED) system provides the locations of people who felt the earthquake within a minute of the earthquake's detection by the USGS and provides short, firsthand accounts of its effects

TED, which runs on surplus computers, uses an application programming interface that aggregates tweets based on keywords — like "earthquake"  — to pull tweets about a particular earthquake into a database. Then the USGS generates an e-mail report containing the magnitude, location, depth below the surface, number of tweets about the earthquake broken down by their location, and text of the first 40 or 50 tweets.

“Basically at the same time that you just would have received a magnitude and epicenter, you would get magnitude and epicenter and then the short little snippets about what people felt in the earthquake and what people experienced,” explained Paul Earle, a USGS seismologist involved with the project.

According to Earle, the USGS’ Did You Feel It? questionnaire provides more detailed information, but it takes longer for those reports to come in. This system fills that gap.

The system also may help the USGS locate earthquakes that are too small to be detected by its network of sensors. “As you get outside the United States and in some regions of the United States, the seismographic network is very sparse,” Earle said. “So you’ll get these tweets in before you can actually locate it with our system.”

The tweets also provide confirmation that an earthquake occurred and its magnitude. “And then, by what they have in the text, you can have some intuitive feel if the magnitude is right, if you’re a seismologist,” he said. 

TED is still under development and hasn’t been publicly released.

Currently the USGS provides earthquake notifications via e-mail and text messages. These messages can be customized as to length and filtered according to location and the time of day they occurred. The notification service also allows users to define the size of earthquake they want to be notified about. Knowing that information and the frequency of earthquakes could help citizens improve their earthquake preparedness.

[Photo courtesy of FEMA News Photo.]