Twitter in Emergencies: Organizations Can Now Request and Share Locations via DM

Map with Pin by mark justinecorea on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Map with Pin by mark justinecorea on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Getting accurate location information is one of the main challenges when using social media in emergencies. Knowing that a bridge has collapsed or that a family is sitting on a roof is useless if you don’t know where this is happening.

Unfortunately, getting precise information from people is very difficult in an emergency: some people have problems with the technology, some don’t know the location very well, some are too stressed to give coherent information and in some parts of the world there aren’t many street names.

Where are you?

As a result, all social media listening projects during emergencies use considerable resources to ask “Can you please describe your location more precisely?” A new Twitter feature, which is currently in private beta, has the potential to make life much easier for emergency managers.

Through Twitter’s Direct Messaging APIs it is now possible to initiate direct messages and to use these DMs to request location information from the user’s phone, i.e. the GPS module. Of course, the user has to give explicit consent for his/her location to be shared. To a degree, you can even do this if the user is not following your account. I tried it with TGIF (see below) and was able to DM with their bot, even though I did not follow them. However, I was the one who had initiated that conversation via a link. I don’t think accounts could simply start talking to users that are using emergency related hashtags without the users starting the conversations, but I’m guessing you could share such a link manually or write a bot that shares a link to start that process if someone uses a certain hashtag – for example: “@name We would like to get more information from you about the situation in <location>. Please click this link to talk to use directly: <LINK>” And yes, I realise that that raises a whole new range of issues with spam and/or malicious website but that is a discussion for another day.

On their blog, Twitter demonstrates the functionality with the following example from TGI Fridays:


Go here!

In an emergency management context I immediately see two uses for this:

  • Help users share their precise location from mobile devices, with just one click. As an added benefit, this method also addresses some privacy concerns, since the location is shared by DM only and not publicly.
  • Tell users where they can get help, for example where the next shelter is.

As the example from TGIF shows, location sharing can be linked with chat bots. That means you could write a simple bot that asks users what their needs are (food, shelter, etc) and then send them to the right address for that specific need. In an ideal world, you could even connect this with information about which shelters still have spaces and which are full and route people accordingly.

According to Twitter, these features will not be available to “normal” users, but only to businesses, i.e. there will be a price tag attached to them. However, I’m pretty sure that national emergency services would be able to use them for free or for a much lower price.

What are your thoughts on these features? Please leave a comment below!