“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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