Bringing Twitter streams to disasters

Madeleine Wackernagel
© ReliefWeb

** UPDATE While we still manage our Twitter account, we removed the Twitter streams for disasters in July 2018.

In 2015, ReliefWeb covered 88 natural disasters, with the Nepal earthquakes the most significant. Within minutes of the first quake, on 25 April, photographs and commentary about the disaster were posted on Twitter, providing real-time updates for victims and relief workers alike, in a good example of the potentially life-saving power of social media.

Twitter has just turned ten and has to date clocked up 300 million followers - of whom a large number live in disaster zones and could be potential sources of information should a catastrophe strike. At ReliefWeb, our editors strive to filter through those news items so that our users don't have to, providing only the most vital and accurate updates in the course of a disaster, and that increasingly includes social media.

As mobile connectivity improves in countries prone to disasters, social media is playing an increasingly important role in disseminating information to the wider world, whether it be via Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. Accordingly, at ReliefWeb we are working hard to integrate such platforms into our content selection process to ensure the most relevant humanitarian updates are made available to our users in a timely and consistent manner.

We launched our Humanitarian Videos section last year, based on YouTube content, and now we are beginning to experiment with Twitter streams on certain disasters, such as the Niger meningitis outbreak in March 2016, Tropical Cyclone Winston, which hit Fiji at the end of February 2016, and the Dzud disaster in Mongolia.

Our Editors run custom searches on Twitter for a specific disaster. If they see a good result, they share it with our users on the left-hand column of the disaster page under “Related Tweets”. These Tweets are particularly useful at the sudden onset of a disaster, especially in remote areas where the traditional media may not immediately be able to track the unfolding story.

We are also looking at Twitter feeds for our Topic pages, which we are in the process of revamping. The El Niño phenomenon, which is having a particularly devastating impact on East and Southern Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Central America, is an especially relevant example of our work to keep the humanitarian community as up-to-date with events as possible.

These features are still in the testing stage and, as always, we welcome all comments and suggestions.