While it’s great for casual stalking, gossip, and relentlessly comparing yourself to other people, social media actually has some potentially useful applications too. One of the biggest is emergency information of various kinds, including alerting people about criminals on the loose, impending inclement weather, public health crises, and so on. Now we can add earthquake warnings, delivered in real time, to the list.
Last week the Chinese city of Chengdu, with over 14 million inhabitants, used social media to send warnings of an approaching earthquake shockwave to users on Weibo, a microblogging site that is often called the Chinese Twitter. The messages were sent by a local earthquake research organization, which has created an automatic warning system which immediately sends messages out to social media followers when an earthquake is detected.
The emergency warning system was created after Chengdu and other parts of Sichuan province were devastated by the 2008 earthquake which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and killed almost 70,000 people, including thousands of school children caught in collapsing school buildings. The system employs 200 seismic sensors over an area of around 7,700 square miles; messages are automatically sent within five seconds of a seismic event being detected.
While it might seem futile to alert people to an earthquake that is already happening, Chinese studies have shown that timely alerts could actually make a big difference in survival rates; according to one study, casualties could be reduced by 14% if people in the affected area received a three-second warning, increasing to 39% with a ten-second warning, and 63% for a 20-second warning. Most earthquake shockwaves travel at a speed of three to four miles per second, so if the epicenter of a quake were located 50 miles away from an urban area, that would leave about ten to 15 seconds before the shockwave arrived. If the warning were delivered within five seconds, that leaves five to ten seconds to grab your kid (or your pet or your prized fern or whatever) and get out of a building, or at least into a doorjamb.
Of course there are some obstacles to implementation, including issues that will sound familiar to advertisers, like reach and awareness. So far the Chengdu research institute only has around 1,000 followers on Weibo, which means the alert last week was more a “proof of concept” than anything else. But there are hundreds of millions of Chinese on microblogging services, and if they are anywhere near as obsessive as Americans -- I’m guessing they are -- they probably have them open on their browsers or smartphones all the time, making pretty good odds of reaching a good number of them. Then users who see the message can alert those around them.