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Twitter beats U.S. Geological Survey to Philippines quake news

By Bloomberg News

LAST UPDATED: 10:21 a.m. HST, Aug 31, 2012

The U.S. Geological Survey was tipped off to the 7.6-magnitude earthquake off the coast of the Philippines by messages posted to blogging site Twitter Inc.

The Reston, Va.-based agency detected tweets about the earthquake one minute and seven seconds after the seismic event, which occurred at about 8:47 p.m. local time, Paul Earle, a USGS seismologist, said in a telephone interview.

Social media sites such as San Francisco-based Twitter are playing a stepped up role in alerting people and gauging reactions to natural disasters. USGS scientists monitor tweets for mentions of the word “earthquake” and its equivalents in other languages.

“In some cases, it gives us a heads up that it happened before it can be detected by a seismic wave,” Earle said.

The system for monitoring Twitter, called the Tweet Earthquake Dispatch, is most effective in remote regions, where the agency does not have as many instruments for measuring seismic activity as it does in an earthquake-prone area such as California, Earle said.

A tsunami alert was canceled after being issued on the heels of the temblor. The Philippines has been battered by natural disasters in recent months, killing dozens of people. President Benigno Aquino has drawn criticism for his handling of the crises. The nation was hit by an earthquake that killed at least 48 people and triggered landslides that left dozens more missing in February.

The USGS occasionally receives false alarms from the prototype system, such as when Twitter users post message about the song “Earthquake” by British musician Labrinth.

“It’s not foolproof,” Earle said.

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