How on earth can Twitter fight fires, save you from earthquakes, or find help during hurricanes?

nasa satellite wildfire

Twitter is no doubt the go-to source when natural disasters strike. It’s weird how social media attracts people to document and announce what they are witnessing, such as people tweeting about an earthquake or checking into an earthquake-related place on Foursquare while they’re ducked under a table. Finally, a site is making use of that phenomenon by creating Twitcident, a crowdsourcing service that gathers live tweets on natural crisis to find updates and emergency informations in various disaster settings.

Twitcident is built by developers at the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology to help the public seek information on anything from terrorist attacks, weather-related disasters, wildfires, and industrial emergencies such as chemical explosions and oil spills. For example, people might be tweeting about the path of a hurricane and this information can help rescue teams track its movement. Tweets about road blockage from fires, earthquakes, or fallen trees can also be sorted and sent to authorities.

The service works by utilizing a hashtag-like concept that sorts events and places into categories so when you log onto the Twitcident dashboard, you can select the emergency most closely related to what you’re looking for. Clicking that will lead you to a curated stream of tweets that can be helpful to finding you updates and help to your localized needs.

The developers say Twitcident’s technology helps the site sort logical information to parse out what’s helpful from random rants about current events. Only tweets with helpful updates, such as “Fire is spreading through the intersection of X and Z streets” will be sent to the local rescue department. So far, Twitcident has been in beta for the past 10 months with local Dutch emergency services, with the hopes that a worldwide release could be useful to everyone connected through the Twitterverse. If you’re interested in getting updates on when the public beta testing comes out, put yourself on the e-mail list on the official Twitcident site. Meanwhile, you can check out a demonstration video of how the service works at the bottom of the page.

This isn’t the first time social media has been proven to rescue those in need of help. We’ve seen Twitter help a couple rescue a kidnapped man from a carjacking incident and Facebook finding help for a dancer trapped in a capsized cruise ship. We may make fun of those tweeting, updating statuses, and checking into social media sites during times of national crisis, but these information can oddly be more useful than you think. That said, let’s not play The Boy Who Cried Wolf on these sites since they’re being taken more seriously than ever. And of course, if you need immediate help, do not rely on social media to give you the 411 and just call 911.