When national emergencies take over current mindsets, the first place people turn to spread information and receive information is Twitter.  Unfortunately, when crises rise and Tweets spike, Twitter often goes into Fail Whale Mode.

The University of Colorado is stepping into the Fail Whale void — not to solve the server overloads, but rather to propose a universal “Tweet Syntax” than can be parsed by computers that would then be able to more quickly pinpoint where help is needed — and it is being put to test in the field in Haiti: 

Our team and a growing group of collaborators involved in Crisis Camps have developed a Tweet-friendly hashtag-based syntax to help direct Twitter communications for more efficient data extraction for those communicating about the Haiti earthquake disaster. Use only requires modifications of Tweet messages to make information pieces that refer to , , , #damage and several other elements of emergency communications more machine readable. This allows for easier automated collation by any number of groups and good Samaritans from any number of sources. HELP US SPREAD THE WORD!!!

Here are some “before and after” examples from the Colorado team to better explain their emergency hashtag system:

TWEET-BEFORE: roads from PAP to les Cayes are open migration from PAP to rural areas has begun

TWEET-AFTER: roads from #loc PAP to les Cayes are open migration from PAP to rural areas has begun

This tells the computer:

what = road
what about it = open
where = at PaP to les Cayes
what else: “open migration from PAP to rural areas has begun”

TWEET-BEFORE: Altagrace Pierre needs help at Delmas 14 House no. 14.

TWEET-AFTER: Altagrace Pierre help #loc Delmas 14 House no. 14.

This tells the computer:

what = need help
who = Altagrace Pierre
where = Delmas 14 House no. 14.

We think this is a brilliant blending of current, but separate, technologies that can serve the higher hopes of the human cause — by streamlining the task of emergency first responders — and we urge the immediate, universal, adoption of the “Emergency Tweet Hashtag Syntax System.”


  1. Me, too, Gordon. It does make sense and it really cuts down on the “person-to-person” chain of telling and just lets a computer intercept and parse these urgent, specific, calls for help.

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