Translating Twitter for campus disasters

Bucket Brigade is available for free on Android mobile devices.

Twitter just got even more concise: Students, faculty members, and campus administrators can tweet more efficiently with an application that provides a shortcut for asking for #Help or telling loved ones #Imok.

Bucket Brigade Keyboard, a free app for Android devices developed by University of Colorado (CU) doctoral student Daniel Schaefer, uses an alternative keyboard to translate Twitter chatter into syntax used during fires, earthquakes, floods, or campus shootings.

Creating a common language for emergencies, Schaefer said, could improve social media communication during the tense first hours of a natural disaster or security incident. Students, in other words, won’t be yelling into the void of tweets and random hashtags.

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“Twitter is becoming the place to go during a disaster,” said Schaefer, whose CU research has focused on communications and crowdsourcing. “It doesn’t mean the other mediums are not utilized, but the ability to be concise and to communicate quickly is really effective, especially when crazy stuff is happening.”

Schaefer’s app – named for the early firefighters who doused flames by passing along buckets of water – has a dozen message choices, such as “location,” “resource,” “help,” “I’m ok,” and “contact.”

The specially designed keyboard can be used by tapping the red bucket icon on an Android smart phone. Brigade Bucket users can write their tweets the way they normally would, and the application will translate the messages to standard signals used by first responders.

“In a disaster, communication and working together can save lives,” Schaeffer said. “I think it could really make a difference during a disaster.”

The emergency-related Twitter syntax available on the Bucket Brigade app is similar to an app called Tweak the Tweet, another program created by a CU researcher that was used by thousands of Twitter users during the 2010 Japanese earthquake and the tornadoes in Joplin, Mo.

Schaefer said he made Bucket Brigade exclusive to smart phones because if people are using the web to communicate during emergencies, they’re likely on the move, not seated comfortably at a desk.

“People are going to be holding smart phones during disasters,” he said. “They’re not going to be going to laptop computers or cafés with time to look up the syntax.”

Bucket Brigade has been downloaded in 20 countries, according to a CU announcement.

Colleges and university officials have largely embraced popular social media platforms for emergency notifications, but decision makers aren’t entirely sold on the concept.

Pepperdine University President Andrew Benton told higher-education officials last March at the American Council on Education’s (ACE) Annual Meeting that social media activity during campus disasters could spread inaccurate information to concerned family members and local journalists covering the emergency.

“We can’t count on the press,” Benton said. “We can count on the press to relay the wrong things. … Our campus is an island of calm because we know what we’re doing.”

Benton added that media outlets “try to gin up fear” with newspaper, TV, and online stories run during and immediately following an emergency.

Schaeffer said relying on Twitter during emergencies comes with a tradeoff that most users are aware of: instant communication can save lives, but unfiltered information can often be misleading.

“That’s the cost of the medium: It’s so quick and concise that it can tip off the media,” he said. “But I don’t think it should be discouraged. It’s still very valuable.”

While following the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords last January, Schaeffer said he sorted through hundreds of tweets with breaking news. Some of them, he said, proclaimed Giffords had died.

“It’s sometimes difficult to verify all the content,” Schaeffer said. “It’s sort of like we’ve opened Pandora’s Box.”

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