Commentary

Twitter's Public Utility Shines

Twitter’s value to individual users has always been highly subjective. (Hey, not everyone likes drinking from an open fire hydrant.) Yet, its value to anyone who can make use -- and make sense -- of its furious data stream has never been in doubt.    

Proving that fact once again, some Australian researchers have determined that Twitter analysis was better than FEMA's own models at predicting the location and severity of damage from Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

“The main advantage of the technique is that it is a ‘virtually zero-cost solution,’ Manuel Cebrian, co-author of the report, tells Science Advances.

Cebrian and his colleagues suggest that Twitter -- and similarly mobile forms of social media -- could one day be used to assess the damage of disasters both natural and man-made, and then plan the appropriate relief measures.

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Of course, that would do nothing for Twitter’s bottom line and its mounting financial woes. 

Rather, it supports the sentiment among some that the social giant should consider a less-profit-focused path.

Despite being “the world’s most important social network,” Twitter might do better as “an independent but private company; as a small and sustainable division of some larger tech or media conglomerate; or even as a venture that operates more like a nonprofit foundation,” the New York Times’ Farad Manjoo recently suggested.

For their findings, the Australian researchers studied 9.7 million geo-located tweets. They were then able to chart how proximity to Sandy changed the volume of tweets, using keywords like “sandy,” “hurricane,” and “flooding.” Using data from FEMA, the team even demonstrated that Twitter data was a reliable predictor of real-world damage.

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