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CB2: Twitter Fast Follow for Crisis Alerting

Last week Twitter announced Fast Follow, a way for citizens to subscribe to your Tweets via SMS even if they don’t have a Twitter account. For example, if I text “follow StPeteFL” to 40404 I will start receiving every Tweet from St. Petersburg, FL as a text message on my phone. That’s easier than subscribing to most city alert programs, which often require your name, email, etc to be entered online. And, people don’t even have to know what Twitter is or how to use it – huge considering roughly 75% of the US is not Tweeting.

In Twitter’s blog announcing Fast Follow, they used NotifyNYC as an example (which I also highlighted in my recent CB2 on Getting Emergency Notification Right). This set off a bright lightbulb in my head:
Could cities save big money using Twitter as their mobile alerting platform?
Mobile alerting is expensive. From phone company to service providers fees, it costs anywhere between 1 to 3 cents per message, passed on to municipalities in the form of annual agreements ranging from $10,000 to over $100,000 per year. If you don’t have that kind of money to spend (or want to start saving it), here’s how I would use Twitter Fast Follow as an alternative:

  1. Create a unique Twitter account that you’ll just use for alerts, for example “StPeteAlert.” The shorter the better. Don’t plan on using this for your other updates like “See our video on the parking lot ribbon cutting.” Use it sparingly when you have something important to say so you’re not text pestering.
  2. Promote the message “Text ‘follow StPete Alert to 40404’ to get emergency alerts from St. Petersburg.” Put up some signs, add it to your website, get the local news to cover it, whatever.
  3. Tweet your message from your new account to blast out an alert. Every subscriber will receive a text message when you do this by way of Twitter’s feathery magic.

What are the downsides?

  1. Reliability. If Twitter could harpoon the fail whale and keep their service online 99% of the time (putting it on par with traditional alerting companies), one could rest easier using Twitter to power crisis alerting. I wouldn’t recommend it now for “shooter on campus” alerts where seconds matter, but it would be fine for weather warnings, major road closures, etc.
  2. Feature set. Alerting companies provide a lot of useful features like transmission reports, message templates, geotargeting, etc. This doesn’t exist yet for Twitter, but it could. Ok fine, I take that challenge! GovLive will whip something up as we always do. If you’re a city webmaster and want to be the guinea pig, I mean pilot, contact me.

Tommy Can You Hear Me?
While I’m on the topic of Twitter for crisis alerting, I’ll bring up yet again that Twitter really needs to start validating more government accounts (GovLive Tweets or GovTwit can help) and use that validation to promote official information during emergencies. The graphic below, which I Photoshopped and dropped off at Twitter’s office in April without receiving any reply, says it all.

Website of the Week: Twitter Guide For Government (PDF)
It’s really a beginner’s guide for anyone looking to dive into Twitter, but one of the better ones I have come across. After going through this guide you’ll be ready to use Fast Follow to send crisis alerts!

Read Last Week’s CB2: 3 Crises You Should Know About.

About Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett is a self-proclaimed emergency management innovator who is trying to make government better by improving citizen preparedness and crisis communications. He’s a graduate of Wharton with a master’s from Harvard with in “Technology, Innovation, Education.” His portfolio of companies and former projects include OneStorm Hurricane Preparedness, ReadyTown, GovLive, TexasPrepares and America’s Emergency Network. Chris was the recipient of FL Governor Crist’s 2008 Public Information Award. He lives in St. Petersburg, FL, loves to fish, and has been spotted sharing a pint with GovLoop Founder Steve Ressler in Tampa.

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Adriel Hampton

Great info, Chris. And I totally agree that Twitter should be moving in this direction. I think they should also have a priority channel for verified EMS tweets, so that they get through during high volume events. Also love that Learning Pool doc by Dave Briggs – I also link to it on my Twitter strategy guide.

Chris Bennett

Thanks Adriel. I get it that government isn’t a priority for Twitter, but it’s a bit odd that they highlight agencies all the time yet have no point of contact for government webmasters. Just imagine if Twitter gave government the same treatment they did for the World Cup.

Kenna Walsh

Thanks so much for that info. I’m a Ph.D. student and researching how government uses applications like Twitter in emergency situations and in general. I think the doomsday whale complicates matters. Twitter has a long way to go in keeping up with demands.

Chris Bennett

Thanks Kenna. Let me know if you need any help with your work. Would be happy to chat on the phone if you have any questions about emergency alerting. I know a lot about this space.

Sara Estes Cohen

Chris – great call on blogging about this. I just saw this new feature the other day and was just thinking about the implications of it in emergency communication…can also help get individuals to participate who are not comfortable with Twitter…

Chris Bennett

Good point. You probably wouldn’t want to make a highway sign asking somebody to text something, but that’s what came to mind when I opened Photoshop 🙂 Although, there have been signs to call about road conditions for years.

Ian McCallum

This discussion sparked the what’s going on with my community, so I checked on my city’s tweeter feed. They really do a poor job of providing emergency information or road closures. For instance many road closures never make it on the feed. The Channel is overburden with MA – media advisories, PSA – Public Service Advisory, Story ideas and all other communications from the city.

Having a dedicated emergency notice tweeter feed from all the cities departments and segregated from the other city information would be really helpful, ie “O’Connor between a and b closed due to fire” would support traffic flow.

Also I went all the way back in the City of Ottawa tweeter feed to when we had a small earthquake -5.5. Below is the tweeter feed which upon reflection I don’t find helpful because its a link to the press release and not current good information. For myself I would have preferred. ” Small earth quack, most services and facilities running as usual. Many traffic lights are on flash cycle approach with caution.”

Tweeter can be a powerful information tool but for many governments web2.0 is not part of ongoing operations. The way the City of Ottawa operates in my view reflects information overload with poor quality, and does not reflect an effort to provide channels of information for different types of consumers/public.
PLS see a copy of the Earth Quack tweeter feed below.

# PSA: Earthquake update for Ottawa – As of 5:55AM EDT, June 24, 2010 http://bit.ly/aU8KMm 6:33 AM Jun 24th via twitterfeed

PSA: Earthquake update for Ottawa http://bit.ly/dqS0Iq 7:12 PM Jun 23rd via twitterfeed

Chris Bennett

Great points, Ian. Your example emphasizes the value of having a dedicated account for emergency alerts if a city plans on using Twitter to send them out. That’s not to say they can’t cross-post them to their general Twitter account, but this way people could just Fast Follow the emergency feed if that’s what interests them.

And as you said, if that account’s purpose is for pushing alerts to mobile, the message needs to be carefully considered. Assume people can’t follow a link for more information for instance.

Would be awesome to work on this with a municipality. Let me know if there are any out there interested in collaborating.

Richard Fong

Nice blog post and great comments…Fast Follow is an intriguing idea for emergency management during a crisis. For Twitter, they really have to provide fail whale and provide MORE government validated accounts. As a citizen, I want to know and make sure that the account that I am following is who they say they are…In terms of messaging that’s really a business decision and comfort level for each org.

Carol A. Spencer

Chris, let’s talk more about this. I’m presenting a county-wide twitter emergency notification application to our governing body in two weeks. I’m really excited about it and would love to have your thoughts / opinions. Fast Follow was fabulously timely and will be a great selling point when I present.

Robin Johnson

Could someone please explain what CB2 stands for? I get the impression that it’s emergency-related, but I still can’t figure it out!

Chris Bennett

I probably should include that in the footer. In the first weekly post we introduced it at “Chris Bennett’s Crisis Blog” or CB2 (squared) but GovLoop didn’t take superscript so it just became CB2. Thrilling I know 🙂