I’ve joked for a long time that there exists in Rochester a sort of “Twitter Doppler” reporting system for weather. When big storms roll into the Rochester area, you can accurately measure their passing simply by watching the #ROC hashtag for that few hours.
But as it turns out, Twitter actually is pretty good at tracking crises in real time and that fact is receiving some scientific mention today, as Nature reports that researchers find that in Haiti’s cholera outbreak, the direct reporting on Twitter was nearly as accurate as official reports.
In fact, they found the reports to be much faster. That’s the least we could have expected, of course. But on the average, they found those faster reports more accurate, which is surprising even for those of us who believe in Twitter’s power as a communicator.
There are a few necessary caveats, of course. Twitter reports will likely be urban-biased, since wealth is largely urban-biased. Also, to the extent that journalists are the drivers of social media reports – a variable not defined in the original article – they will also be urban biased.
But it seems to me that official reports are at least as likely to have the same bias, since especially in more remote locations, rural life is difficult to get to. Moreover, official reports often have political biases for which we cannot necessarily account or make predictions. That social media was able to shed some light on the situation raises the question of what might happen in the context of a more closed society than Haiti.