Commentary

Tagged Sharks Tweet Locations for Real Time Warnings

Here’s another one of those headlines about social media that would have been completely incomprehensible ten years ago. According to The Drum, which first reported the story, a group called Surf Live Saving Western Australia has combined location data from transmitters attached to sharks with its Twitter feed to enable live, automatic alerts when the big toothy fellas get a little too close to popular beaches.

The alerts include the size and breed of the sharks, as well as their location, allowing surfers and other beachgoers to conduct their own personal risk assessment: presumably one might risk proximity with a 1.5-meter Zebra shark when it’s reeling and the waves are rippa, whereas an approaching 6-meter Great White would give reason for pause, no matter how bonsa conditions may be.

One small problem, of course, is that not all sharks cruising Australian waters have been tagged: researchers have equipped roughly 320 of the most frequent denizens with transmitters. Thus the automatic warning system isn’t quite comprehensive -- but the SLSWA also tweets shark warnings manually, based on reports from helicopter patrols along the shoreline, so there’s some redundancy built into the system.

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The idea of using social media for real-time warnings and notifications during emergencies and natural disasters is obviously compelling. Back in January the Chinese city of Chengdu 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.

According to Chinese studies, casualties could be reduced by 14% if people in the affected area received a three-second warning of an approaching earthquake shockwave, increasing to 39% with a ten-second warning, and 63% for a 20-second warning. 

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