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September 29, 2011

Colo. student develops Twitter app for disasters

By Brittany Anas
The Daily Camera

BOULDER, Colo. — Inspired by the swift swapping of emergency information through Twitter during last year's Fourmile Fire, a University of Colorado graduate student developed an Android application to help people use a common language while tweeting during disasters.

Daniel Schaefer, a University of Colorado doctoral student in communication, created a software application — or "app" — for mobile devices that turns everyday language into a Twitter syntax used during disasters through a special smart phone keypad.

Just as public safety communication codes were developed for citizens' band radios — or CBs — that grew in popularity in the 1970s, a common language is emerging for disaster communication on Twitter.

Twitter has become popular during disasters because it offers a concise and efficient communication medium, Schaefer said. But, he said, a need to standardize the syntaxes used on Twitter has surfaced particularly for the emergency personnel, affected individuals, concerned loved ones, information officers and journalists who use it to provide and monitor information and collaborate on rescue efforts.

Already, Android phones have downloadable smart keyboards that allow users to type in emoticons or foreign languages.

"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if there were a keyboard for people using Twitter during a disaster to use standard codes?'" Schaefer said.

Schaefer's application uses syntax developed in 2009 by doctoral student Kate Starbird of CU's Project EPIC (Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis) research group. Nearly 3,000 tweets using the "Tweak the Tweet" syntax were posted in the weeks following Haiti's 2010 earthquake.

During the Fourmile Fire, Colorado's most destructive wildfire, Schaefer noticed that people were using wrong hashtags to mark their tweets for easy searching.

Schaefer's app helps provide a solution to better streamline emergency tweets.

The free app is called the Bucket Brigade Keyboard. It transforms the standard smart phone keyboard display into a keypad of a dozen message choices such as "help," "location" and "request."

When those messages are selected, corresponding tweets that could include a user's status, needs or offers to help are queued for posting online.

The app, for example, turns "I'm Ok" into "#imok."

Schaefer entered the Bucket Brigade Keyboard in the Federal Communications Commission's "Apps for Communities" contest.

The challenge called for apps that help local government deliver quality-of-life improving information to populations that are typically disenfranchised or disconnected from broadband communications.

The app has been downloaded in 20 countries.

Copyright 2011 Prairie Mountain Publishing

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