Up until now, the series has mostly focused on how you can use Twitter to directly communicate with other members. I've shared insight into how you can expand your networking skills, use Twitter to meet up with people in person and set links on the viral path with "retweets." While each and every one of those uses adds value to the Twitter service, it was the use of Twitter as a news source that first caught my interest.
If you're just joining the series, make sure to go back and read part one where I gave step by step directions on getting your Twitter account up and running, part two where I explain how to send messages and take advantage of the Twitter follow/followers system and part three where I explained how Twitter can help you meet new people. In part four, I looked at the traffic potential of Twitter and explained the value of retweets in making a link go viral.
Twitter is a Useful News Outlet
The Internet as a whole isn't just about sending messages back and forth between individual people; it's also about broadcasting news and opinions to the world. As it turns out, Twitter is pretty darn effective at this too.
In fact, I wrote an article last fall talking about how a San Diego area TV station was using a Twitter feed to keep people updated about the wildfires burning their way through California.
At the time, my brother and his wife were driving from San Diego to Rhode Island to find a house for an upcoming job transfer. While the wildfires had started burning before they left, their neighborhood wasn't in the danger zone. That said, by the time they reached Oklahoma they'd received a call from their neighbors telling them their street was being evacuated. The neighbor said they'd stopped by my brother's house to pick up his cat and were headed to one of the emergency shelters. At the time, the fires were four miles from my brother's house.
While the wildfires were making national news, detailed information about exactly where they were headed was hard to come by on the radio. As my brother and his wife drove cross country, they called my mom every half hour or so asking her to get updates online.
That's when I noticed an interesting link on a local news site using a Google Maps mash-up to track the fire.
In the left column was a note linking to the station's Twitter feed for live updates on the fire's progress. Instead of relying on my mother to try and figure out where the fire was, they could now subscribe to the Twitter feed and get the latest news sent straight to their mobile phone. Since they were familiar with street names and neighborhoods, these Twitter updates gave them accurate, up-to-the-minute news on exactly where the fire was headed. (Since I know at least a few of you are curious, the fires ended up changing course less than half a mile from their house.)
The station's use of Twitter to keep people updated was brilliant. In fact, my mind immediately filled with images of news stations offering similar Twitter feed updates after disasters like Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and any other disaster that relied on quick communication in chaotic times.
Twitter as an Emergency Alert System
Of course you can also play off the news alert idea to see the value of Twitter as an emergency alert system. Breaking news alerts are important, but they require people to come to the site and register to receive them. Twitter could also be used to preemptively create news alerts among specific groups of people.
After the Virginia Tech shootings last year, more and more campuses started looking for ways to put warning systems in place so students could be notified of dangerous situations on campus. The goal with these systems was to send out notices via email or SMS text message so phone lines would stay free for emergency personnel and first responders. My own alma mater, Ohio State, put a system in place called Buckeye Alert.
The problem with these systems is that many rely on email to get the word out. Since email relies on students to be at a computer to get the notice, there's an obvious flaw in the system. With such a high percentage of students now carrying mobile phones, relying on SMS text message alerts pretty much ensures that at least one student in every class, dorm or campus building will get a notification of any immediate threat.
While it's understandable that most colleges would probably prefer to rely on their own in-house systems to send these messages, it would also be quite possible to run this type of system through Twitter. Instead of having students register with the university, you would simply give them an information sheet telling them how to subscribe to the emergency alert Twitter feed and how to make sure those messages come through on their mobile phones. Of course a school could also set up a feed to let students (and parents) know about school cancellations and other breaking, but non-urgent news. The same idea could be applied to sports leagues, book clubs or any type of group where quick messages might need to be sent to the members.
Twitter Could Help Make Your Commute Smoother
There's no question Twitter holds value in terms of spreading the word about breaking news. With nearly everyone using a mobile phone these days, SMS messaging is far more effective than TV, Radio or even the Internet for spreading the word quickly in emergencies. But what if Twitter could make mundane tasks like your daily commute a little easier? Would you use it then?
It turns out, people are already using Twitter for this. In fact, a newspaper in St. Louis recruited a team of more than a dozen Twitter users to send live reports on their commutes during a major St. Louis highway construction process. The paper wrote an article outlining which Twitter users were taking which routes to work and gave readers the username of each person. That way, local readers could follow the "right" Twitter user to get relevant updates for their own commute.
If you're looking for something on a broader scale, you can check out Commuter Feed, a site that lets Twitter users send in traffic reports for any city with an airport code. The system them publishes the information on a feed dedicated to each metro area. Site users can subscribe to their local feed, or simply check the site for updates before hitting the road.
The system works by having Twitter users send their tweets @commuter while including the airport code of the city. This triggers their system to sort the traffic reports and add them into each metro area's traffic feed. A sample submission to the site would look something like this:
The tweets are posted on the site based on the metro area. Here's this morning's postings for Cincinnati:
Commuter is still in the early development phases, which means they can't yet shoot out a filtered set of tweets for a specific city. That said, you can still subscribe to the feed of your city and then use a third party service like Pingie or Yahoo Alerts to have the feed sent via SMS text message. Either way, Commuter shows the long-term potential of Twitter as more companies learn how to leverage the Twitter API to offer some really helpful tools.
Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.
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