Can Official Disaster Response Apps Compete with Twitter?

There are over half-a-billion Twitter users, with an average of 135,000 new users signing up on a daily basis (1). Can emergency management and disaster response organizations win over some Twitter users by convincing them to use their apps in addition to Twitter? For example, will FEMA’s smartphone app gain as much “market share”? The app’s new crowdsourcing feature, “Disaster Reporter,” allows users to submit geo-tagged disaster-related images, which are then added to a public crisis map. So the question is, will more images be captured via FEMA’s app or from Twitter users posting Instagram pictures?


This question is perhaps poorly stated. While FEMA may not get millions of users to share disaster-related pictures via their app, it is absolutely critical for disaster response organizations to explicitly solicit crisis information from the crowd. See my blog post “Social Media for Emergency Management: Question of Supply and Demand” for more information on the importance demand-driven crowdsourcing. The advantage of soliciting crisis information from a smartphone app is that the sourced information is structured and thus easily machine readable. For example, the pictures taken with FEMA’s app are automatically geo-tagged, which means they can be automatically mapped if need be.

While many, many more picture may be posted on Twitter, these may be more difficult to map. The vast majority of tweets are not geo-tagged, which means more sophisticated computational solutions are necessary. Instagram pictures are geo-tagged, but this information is not publicly available. So smartphone apps are a good way to overcome these challenges. But we shouldn’t overlook the value of pictures shared on Twitter. Many can be geo-tagged, as demonstrated by the Digital Humanitarian Network’s efforts in response to Typhoon Pablo. More-over, about 40% of pictures shared on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma Tornado had geographic data. In other words, while the FEMA app may have 10,000 users who submit a picture during a disaster, Twitter may have 100,000 users posting pictures. And while only 40% of the latter pictures may be geo-tagged, this would still mean 40,000 pictures compared to FEMA’s 10,000. Recall that over half-a-million Instagram pictures were posted during Hurricane Sandy alone.

The main point, however, is that FEMA could also solicit pictures via Twitter and ask eyewitnesses to simply geo-tag their tweets during disasters. They could also speak with Instagram and perhaps ask them to share geo-tag data for solicited images. These strategies would render tweets and pictures machine-readable and thus automatically mappable, just like the pictures coming from FEMA’s app. In sum, the key issue here is one of policy and the best solution is to leverage multiple platforms to crowdsource crisis information. The technical challenge is how to deal with the high volume of pictures shared in real-time across multiple platforms. This is where microtasking comes in and why MicroMappers is being developed. For tweets and images that do not contain automatically geo-tagged data, MicroMappers has a microtasking app specifically developed to crowd-source the manual tagging of images.

In sum, there are trade-offs. The good news is that we don’t have to choose one solution over the other; they are complementary. We can leverage both a dedicated smartphone app and very popular social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to crowdsource the collection of crisis information. Either way, a demand-driven approach to soliciting relevant information will work best, both for smartphone apps and social media platforms.



6 responses to “Can Official Disaster Response Apps Compete with Twitter?

  1. Good point Patrick. But let’s not forget the question of popularity of Twitter in different regions. While somewhere it is a popular platform, in others is not, and maybe never will be. Therefore, there might be a space for disaster response apps. The question is, what is more realistic: To make someone to download and use app or to make someone to create Twitter account and use specific hashtag? The second needs a bit more training while the app can be supersimple. You might get less reports via official app but those can have way better quality than tweets as the user is not just tweeting it out to the online space, but reports to an agency. You can also expect a bit more curation of reports by the agency. Well, as you say, the solution is to leverage multiple platforms.

    • Excellent point, Jaro: “The question is, what is more realistic: To make someone to download and use app or to make someone to create Twitter account and use specific hashtag?” My suggestion: people reacting to a disaster are more likely to use whatever they use during non-disasters. So best to promote the use of everyday communication channels for disaster response. What do you think? Thanks again for weighing in, and for reading!

  2. Yes, agreed. We discussed the possibility to built an app for our crisismapping projects, not that it would be a bad idea, it’s just the feeling that it would end up as a lonely shiny app. At the same time, twitter here is useless for crisis. So trying to figure out the right way, we’ll get there at some point 🙂

    • Good deal, thanks Jaro, do keep me posted, I’m very interested in the question you raised. Also been thinking if/how Ethan’s “Cute Cate Theory” plays into this at all. Thanks again for reading/commenting! 🙂

    • Hey Jaro, just came across these stats (US only):

      1 in 5 Americans have used a disaster-related smartphone app
      25% of people download a disaster-related app
      1 in 5 survivors contact emergency responders via social media, websites, email
      35% directly post a request for help on a responder’s FB page
      25% send direct Twitter messages


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