The Thin Tweet Line - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Thin Tweet Line

The Thin Tweet Line

By Anne Miller

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Because Twitter can track where you are — and if you’re in trouble — faster than the folks who come to your rescue. Eeek.

By Anne Miller

Move over, Anderson Cooper. Here’s some breaking news for you: Big data may have just beaten the mega-news organizations at their own game. 

200 seconds

All one firm, Dataminr, needed to confirm the collapse of two buildings in Harlem earlier this month, where eight people died due to a gas explosion. 

Dataminr develops algorithms tracking Twitter tweets. In this case, it tracked tweets from residents who lived near the doomed apartments on East 116th Street. And it didn’t just read the tweets; it also mapped their location, noted their time stamps and identified a cluster. By doing so, Dataminr was able to pinpoint the action quickly and — even more important for journalism’s sake — accurately. The company’s founder outlined the basics of how it works. 

Twitter breaking news isn’t new — one of the creators of YouTube charted the news path of the Boston Marathon bombing as it broke in real time. Subsequent stories charted the pitfalls of Twitter as a breaking news source, most notably the messages about wrongly accused suspects. But already the United Nations has created algorithms to track political hot spots. The raid that claimed the life of Osama bin Laden was live-tweeted.

Many newshounds track breaking news stories on social media. Good ones strive to verify what they’re seeing. But what if they didn’t need to? What if computer programs could verify the accuracy of tweets by taking into consideration more than just the words — and do it faster than it takes someone to explain what’s going on to a 911 dispatcher, much less a reporter who’s trying to race to the scene?


The potential what-ifs boggle the mind. What if the rest of the world had caught on to those Osama bin Laden posts, trumping the president’s announcements about the death of the most wanted man in America?  

What if we knew about the deadly collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh hours earlier — could it have tugged at our hearts more? Or inspired even more outrage or assistance? 

What if we moved beyond the reporters to first responders — could they track tweets faster than 911 calls, saving precious seconds when it comes to rescue efforts and dispatching medical care?

Could first responders track tweets faster than 911 calls?

Tracking tweets for breaking news feels like less of a pipe dream when the massive efforts to mine tweet data becomes apparent, like DirecTV tracking tweets for better marketing. Or the United Nations developing those algorithms for themselves. 

Of course, we’re a long away from journalists feeling confident enough in technology to trade in their notebooks for a Twitter account entirely. Or relying on tweets to direct police officers. The margin of error remains too high and the potential for wasted resources is enormous, at this stage.

But the speed of 200 seconds is hard to ignore.

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