Algorithm Discerns Where Tweets Came from to Track Disasters

There’s a smartphone in nearly everyone’s pocket these days, and crowdsourced data are downright plentiful: photos, videos, and posts on Facebook or Twitter, to name just a few. Now, researchers have developed a new algorithm to pinpoint the geographic locations of natural disasters mentioned in tweets.

The method, which groups tweets together on the basis of the location likely being referred to in the message, can help emergency personnel gauge the magnitude of a disaster and react quickly to deliver relief services, its developers say. This algorithm, which works nearly in real time, complements traditional methods of investigation such as satellite observations, which can be impeded by cloud cover, smoke, or other obstructions.

“We need information about what is happening right now,” said Jeroen Aerts, a geographer at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU Amsterdam) and a member of the research team. “We have to rely on people who are actually in the area.”

“In a natural disaster, landlines might fail, a local cellular network may go down, but as long as a single connection to the internet remains, the disaster’s victims can get their calls for help out, ” said Christopher Brown, a linguist at The University of Texas at Austin who was not involved in the research.

Which Boston?

Researchers have previously used Twitter data to investigate natural disasters. At the American Geophysical Union’s 2016 Fall Meeting, for example, scientists reported that Twitter posts accurately mapped the extent of flooding in Japan.

Unfortunately, geotagging tweets isn’t as simple as recording the latitude and longitude of the sender’s computer or smartphone. That’s because the Twitter feature of attaching GPS coordinates to a tweet is turned off by default, which results in fewer than 1 in 100 tweets having…

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