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Using Twitter to Understand the Silence of an Unknown Emergency | DesignNotes by Michael Surtees

Using Twitter to Understand the Silence of an Unknown Emergency


This morning started like almost every other morning. Waking up early, walking my weim Madison, checking what’s going on with the interwebs via my iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air. I showered, drank some coffee and played some music while doing all that stuff. I also glanced out my window from time to time during the rituals. Something different arose on one of my glances. Smoke coming from what I guessed was 34th street. In a matter of seconds a lot of it arose. What surprised me a great deal was how quiet it was from my apartment. I hear sirens all the time, but for some strange reason I really didn’t hear much sound which lead me to wonder if I was imagining what I was seeing. Fresh in my mind was the latest terrorist arrest and the fact that Thanksgiving was only a couple days away so my imagination was heightened. I had no idea what was happening so I shot a photo from my apartment and sent it to Instagram, Flickr and ultimately Twitter that would carry the message from my iPhone.


I started scanning Twitter to see if I could catch a line about what was happening. It was seconds after the smoke started to rise so nothing was coming through. I didn’t bother turning my tv on and radio doesn’t really exist anymore as we used to know it. So I did what any other New Yorker does when they have no idea what’s going on and heads to work. The only difference from my walk to work this morning was I went through the back door towards Penn Station to see for myself what was going on in the street. It turned out that there was a lot of fire trucks and police cars blocking off 34th st and 7th av. The reaction to that was that there wasn’t any traffic. No traffic, no sounds — hence why it was so quiet when I saw the smoke rise.


I still had no idea what had happened at that point but I started in my proper route to Soho. A couple minutes later I did end up seeing a tweet mentioning what had happened. Thankfully it was only a school bus on fire (which is kind of bad but no one was hurt) so that made things ok.



Later on my walk to work I caught this tweet from someone I don’t follow catching the aftermath. A couple points that I got from this exercise was that there are tools out there to report minutes after something happens, but not as it happens. I couldn’t confirm with anyone else what was going on as the smoke started. Mainstream channels like radio, tv and even internet news are not alert systems, and silence during an emergency is a bad sign.

The biggest take away is to create a list of sources that can give information in real time. I do have a Twitter news list that I keep an eye on at https://twitter.com/#!/list/MichaelSurtees/news. The catch is that it is international as much as it’s local. Because of that I follow a great list put together by @newyorkology for New York headlines at https://twitter.com/#!/NewYorkology/nyc-headlines. If you live in NYC I think it’s a must for days like this when there’s moments when a person has no idea what’s going on. The other big point that’s kind of obvious yet worth keeping in mind is that I used a mobile smart phone to publish what I saw and used it to find out for myself about what was going on.

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