I've spoken and posted in the past about how geeks can help in emergencies. Today I flew up to San Francisco and spoke at a Net Squared event for non-profits about how they could best put Twitter to use.
My experiences in the San Diego fires of 2007 gave me an interesting outlook on how Twitter, as a tool, could be applied in different circumstances. Just a few months after (and some even during) the 2007 firestorm some agencies are scratching the surface of what's possible with this service.
At the outset of my talk I made sure to be clear that Twitter is a tool. It's a good one for some cases and organizations and useless for others. Don't make Twitter the hammer and start looking at everything like a nail. Twitter does some things very well, but it doesn't fit every organization's goals.
Britt (who is awesome by the way) asked me a question in our pre-talk interview. "How could Twitter be used for non-profits?". A question like that is too broad to answer. It's like asking how a website could be used for a business. Instead, I came up with a set of advantages Twitter has which may be used to help determine if Twitter could be useful for your organization. If one of these criterium benefits your community without too many hurdles for adoption, then Twitter might be the right tool for you.
- Speed Using twitter, you can very easily publish information more than once per minute. If distribution speed is critical, regardless of the information being distributed, Twitter may be the tool for you.
- Non-website (source) based alerts Instant messaging, SMS/text messages on cell phones, RSS/Atom feeds, email alerts, badges/widgets on other sites, and other methods of distribution are available. If your community can't be tethered to a website for it's communications, Twitter can provide other methodologies to get that information out to them.
- Community publishing There are a few (slightly more technical) ways of aggregating a group of twitterers posts, which means you could have more people — even your community — pitching in to help publish pertinent information.
The limitations of Twitter
Yes, there are some limitations to Twitter — seemingly huge obstacles to its usefulness.
- Only text and links can be posted. No maps. No photos. No videos. Text and links are all you get.
- 140 character limit. URLs will get shortened wherever possible, but 140 characters is tough to get used to.
- No conversation threading. This can be tough to deal with when you're used to discussion forums and such. Connecting with your community in this way is almost limited to real-time dialogue, which can limit the conversation's depth and longevity.
- The API has a 70 post per hour limit. Note that from what I could tell, the web UI doesn't have this limit, but I'm sure they wouldn't like you posting more than that unless it was an emergency anyway.
There are other limitations as well which I'm not necessarily documenting here. But, the ones listed here can seem insurmountable. Trust me, they're not. They merely make you work around them. But that work around is only about 15 minutes of work and then you're set.
But why stop at Twitter?
Twitter was a great tool for the emergency situation we went through in southern California, but why stop there?
Here's the thing. If you need criterium #2 (non-website based alerts), then publishing to Twitter should be your end goal.
The limitations to Twitter are definitely not insurmountable. So lets use Twitter for what it's good at and go find something else which can help with the things it's missing. We'll put together a quick example prototype using services and websites which already exist.
The end result of the next 15-30 minutes, if you follow me, will be a website which will aggregate photos, videos, blog posts, tweets (twitter posts), for whatever context you would like. We could, for instance, create a site which would show all the different types of media and content on the San Diego fires. Additionally, it would be updated automatically whenever new content is created by you or anyone else (if you want to be that open) on whatever subject you'd like.
We'll do this in steps. But before we do, here's the back-of-the napkin diagram of what we're building.
- Grab RSS feeds from any websites you can. YouTube, Flickr, other Twitter accounts, blogs, etc. Many times, if you're creative, you can get keyword (or "tag") filtered RSS feeds. So, for instance, you can use the public Flickr feed for photos and add a few things to the URL which will let you filter based on tags.
- Create a Soup.io account for your emergency, event, or organization. This part should be pretty easy.
- Add the feeds to the Soup.io account. There's a little tool or gear-looking icon in the bottom left of the screen. Click that and click the "Me Elsewhere" section. In the form that shows up, select "RSS feed" and paste in the feed's URL. Do that for each service you want. Here's an example of what it could look like.
- If you need that criterion #2 (update alerts via something other than the website itself), you can head over to TwitterFeed.com and sign up for an account. This service allows you to take an RSS feed (like from the Soup.io account you created) and push it back into a Twitter account.
- Grab the RSS feed for the Soup.io account you just created. Paste the URL into the TwitterFeed service you created along with whatever Twitter account and password that you want new information to post to.
Now, one thing to note here is that if you're dealing with emergencies, you probably want to have a script produced for you which will do the the RSS to Twitter push. The reason is that TwitterFeed.com only pushes up to 5 new items every 30 minutes — certainly much less often than you'd want in a crisis. It's not too difficult for a developer to do and could most likely be contracted for about $100 or so.
Although I could, I'm not going to develop and distribute a script like that here. Doing something like this would probably irritate Soup.io a little because most service providers don't like to be hit more than once every 30 minutes or more. In a crisis, you'd want to hit it probably once every 5 minutes or more. Plus, this is a prototype. Just a brainstorm.
This whole concept and prototype is what I talked about at the Net Squared event last Tuesday. If you missed it, I suggest keeping an eye on the NetSquared blog. They should have a podcast and video up soon.
NetSquared also has asked a specific question about how if and how non-profits could use Twitter, specifically. Feel free to join the conversation there as well.
If you're interested in having me speak at your event, please feel free to contact me.