Twitter Beats (Wow, By 3 Minutes) The USGS With China Earthquake News

Hey, I like Twitter, but this entire thing Robert Scoble started about how Twitter had news of the Chinese earthquake before the US Geological Survey seemed absurd. Did it really? As it turns out, probably so — by about three minutes. Reading some of the accounts, you’d get the impression Twitter seemed to alert the USGS to the news.

Let’s go to Robert’s blog post about it:

I reported the major quake to my followers on Twitter before the USGS Website had a report up and about an hour before CNN or major press started talking about it. Now there’s lots of info over on Google News.

How did I do that? Well, I was watching Twitter on Google Talk. Several people in China reported to me they felt the quake WHILE IT WAS GOING ON!!!

The USGS, among other things, has people who work to watch earthquakes full time. These people, along with the web site itself, have real-time seismometers. I have no doubt that people on Twitter were fast, talking about it within seconds of it happening. But the USGS was really slow behind them? According to what, exactly?

If only there were a major news gathering organization to check out the veracity of such facts. I know, how about the BBC? They have a fairly good reputation. Sadly, they just enhanced the myth, in my view, that the USGS was somehow way behind:

When I logged on to my desktop Twitter application (sad, I know) it was alive with Tweets about the earthquake in China. Most of them were from the celebrated technology blogger Robert Scoble, who is famous, perhaps notorious, for receiving a Twitter message every second of the day.

He is based in California, but thousands of miles away from the quake he was providing breaking news about it, linking to sites like the BBC and the New York Times, even providing a first picture – though how authentic that is remains to be seen. He now claims that Twitter had the breaking news even before the United States Geological Survey, which provides early warnings of seismic events.

I love tracking down real-time earthquake info. I’ve and Search Engine Land itself have had a couple of posts on them:

In fact, I’ve even been doing things on Twitter about quakes. To those being hit by them in Reno, I’ve pointed them to what I’m pretty sure is a real-time page about them. For a day last week, I also followed @socalquakes on Twitter after discovering it. That’s the USGS itself twittering quakes in Southern California. For those in Northern California, check out @sfearthquakes and @sfquake.

So really, the USGS blew it? I emailed Robert:

So you seem to be the source of the news that Twitter had info on the China earthquake faster than the USGS. Can you tell me how you know this? I mean, where did you look? The USGS has real time reporting, to my knowledge – there should have automatically been something up just as fast as Twitter, though you might not have known where to look. Where did you go?

I also included Gary Price of ResourceShelf, who knows more about online earthquake resources than virtually anyone. Robert wrote back:

The USGS site is almost always three to five minutes behind quakes. It was the same way in Mexico City. People reported the quake on Twitter, I look at the USGS Web site to see if there’s any info there, and it takes a couple of minutes to show up. I definitely beat the USGS by a minute (and I was two minutes behind the first Twitterer’s last night).

And Gary came back with:

I receive real-time earthquake info directly from the USGS with email alerts. Today, I received several "OFFICIAL" reports (vs. people saying there was an earthquake on Twitter*) before ABC NEWS and DOW JONES reported the China quake.

Two of them are included below. They arrive as email messages. *Also RSS is available (perhaps this is what twitter is using??)



***This event supersedes event AT00057368.

Geographic coordinates: 31.084N, 103.266E
Magnitude: 7.5 Mw
Depth: 10 km
Universal Time (UTC): 12 May 2008 06:28:00
Time near the Epicenter: 12 May 2008 14:28:00
Local standard time in your area: 12 May 2008 06:28:00
Location with respect to nearby cities:
95 km (59 miles) WNW (303 degrees) of Chengdu, Sichuan, China
146 km (91 miles) (256 degrees) of Mianyang, Sichuan, China
173 km (108 miles)
NNW (346 degrees) of Leshan, Sichuan, China
1149 km (714 miles) NNW (347 degrees) of HANOI, Vietnam


Geographic coordinates: 31.155N, 103.825E
Magnitude: 5.7 Mb
Depth: 10 km
Universal Time (UTC): 12 May 2008 06:54:18
Time near the Epicenter: 12 May 2008 14:54:18
Local standard time in your area: 12 May 2008 06:54:18

[snipped rest of alert]

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Robert responded:

Here’s a timeline of first Tweets. USGS didn’t post any info about quake until about a minute after my first Tweet:

I was refreshing the USGS page every 10 seconds until news appeared. It was very important news, too, because most of the reports we were hearing were from Beijing.

And Gary countered:

Robert: I see your point. But I would argue that the USGS needs another minute or tw0 [sic] to process the information before releasing it (magnitude, location, etc.) The first few reports did not have the information (from what I see) on Tweeter.

Would you agree?

Btw, NEWSNOW, the awesome news service from the UK, already has a steady stream of news reports from around the globe updated every 5 minutes. WOW!


And Robert responded:

Yes, you are correct.

Twitter is just the signal to look at the USGS Web site for more info. Once we knew the location of the quake then we could guage [sic] how important someone’s info was (based on where they were located).

Of course, remember, in the 1989 quake I was 10 miles from epicenter. Major damage happened not there, but 60 miles away in SF. So even that data will be misleading.

So congrats, Twitter. You beat the USGS by three minutes. I don’t take away the value of Twitter as a communication tool, not at all. But I think the USGS and other reporting agencies out there deserve a little reassurance, as well. Especially for when verified (that’s also kind of important — the earth moves for reasons other than earthquakes) information of earthquakes worldwide is promised by the USGS through various reporting methods within 30 minutes, being a minute behind seems pretty quick to me.

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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