Indexed on: 31 Jul '14Published on: 31 Jul '14Published in: Medicine 2.0
Twitter is a social network where users read, send, and share snippets of text ("tweets"). Tweets can be disseminated through multiple means; on desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices, over ethernet, Wi-Fi or cellular networks. This redundancy positions Twitter as a useful tool for disseminating information to the public during emergencies or disasters. Previous research on dissemination of information using Twitter has mostly investigated the characteristics of tweets that are most effective in raising consumer awareness about a new product or event. In particular, they describe characteristics that increase the chance the messages will be shared ("retweeted") by users. In comparison, little has been published on how information from municipal or state government agencies spreads on Twitter during emergency situations. Retweeting these messages is a way to enhance public awareness of potentially important instructions from public officials in a disaster.The aim of this study is to (1) describe the tweets of select New York State and New York City agencies by public officials surrounding two notable recent winter storms that required a large-scale emergency response, and (2) identify the characteristics of the tweets of public officials that were most disseminated (retweeted).For one week surrounding Superstorm Sandy (October 2012) and the winter blizzard Nemo (February 2013), we collected (1) tweets from the official accounts for six New York governmental agencies, and (2) all tweets containing the hashtags #sandy (or #nemo) and #nyc. From these data we calculated how many times a tweet was retweeted, controlling for differences in baseline activity in each account. We observed how many hashtags and links each tweet contained. We also calculated the lexical diversity of each tweet, a measure of the range of vocabulary used.During the Sandy storm, 3242 shared (retweeted) messages from public officials were collected. The lexical diversity of official tweets was similar (2.25-2.49) and well below the average for non-official tweets mentioning #sandy and #nyc (3.82). Most official tweets were with substantial retweets including a link for further reading. Of the 448 tweets analyzed from six official city and state Twitter accounts from the Nemo blizzard, 271 were related to the storm, and 174 had actionable information for the public. Actionable storm messages were retweeted approximately 24x per message, compared to 31x per message for general storm information.During two weather emergencies, New York public officials were able to convey storm-related information that was shared widely beyond existing follower bases, potentially improving situational awareness and disaster response. Official Sandy tweets, characterized by a lower lexical diversity score than other city- and Sandy-related tweets, were likely easier to understand, and often linked to further information and resources. Actionable information in the Nemo blizzard, such as specific instructions and cancellation notices, was not shared as often as more general warnings and "fun facts," suggesting agencies mix important instructions with more general news and trivia, as a way of reaching the broadest audience during a disaster.