what questions are the people you follow asking right now on twitter? find out with the question mark/follow search

The question mark search is one of the best searches that you can run on twitter during a disaster or incident. It gives you some insight in to what people are thinking, asking or needing to know.  You can run a question mark search with a geosearch of a specific area, or a question mark and hashtag or keyword search; this can immediately give you a look at what is known and not known, what are the concerns and needs, both on site and off site.

It’s also a great way to see what people that you follow on twitter are asking, working on or thinking about at any given time, and a great way to learn to use question mark searches on twitter. Try it some time! Here’s how. First, open your twitter account on twitter.com.


Type a question mark in the search window and run the search (click on magnifying glass icon or press “Enter”.)


Now click on “People you follow.”


The results will be all tweets from people that you follow containing question marks (and questions usually).

qmarkblog4 This is a great way to get to know those that you follow. You might even be able to help people by answering their questions, or get a great twitter conversation going.

Next, we’ll refine the search by adding additional keywords to the search. It happens to be Valentines Day, so let’s just add the word Valentine to our question mark search and run it again.


Play around with this yourself. Maybe try adding a hashtag or a geosearch to it to see what you get.
Happy Valentines Day from thinkdisaster blog!

UPDATE: I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier: try the same search with a heart instead of a question mark! <3 (keep in mind that when you run that search on twitter before you refine the results, you may get some NSFW (not safe for work) content. Use your best judgement.

Here’s my <3 search results:


Q: How reliable is social media during a disaster? A: Very.

I originally wrote this as a response to an article I came across that suggested strongly that social media is unreliable in disasters. The information provided was inaccurate and I thought that those reading it would be misled if the information presented wasn’t challenged, so I wrote a response, and contacted the author as well as the person interviewed for the article.

I’ve rewritten my original response/comment to make it a better blog post, but the original is available here.


The idea that the entire internet and/or social media will become inaccessible during disasters is incorrect, and is also the wrong way to think about social media use for disasters.

First of all, most disasters do not take down all power and all internet access. Very few do.

Of course it is possible that in a massive catastrophe – such as a very large earthquake – power will be lost and those who are using computers for net access may be unable to use those particular devices until power and internet are restored.

But an ever increasing number of people access the internet via mobile devices, and in all but the most massive disasters, most people who have mobile will continue to have reduced but useable access to a very important and powerful communication device; their phone, via text and twitter (twitter works via SMS text technology, which is what makes it such a valuable and important disaster tool).

Even though voice communication locks up fast on both land lines and cellular lines, usually SMS texting stays up and working, as long as the cell towers are up and powered via their emergency gas generators. This has proven true in both the recent Christchurch New Zealand and Tohoku, Japan quakes. As a matter of fact, over half a million people in Japan signed up for twitter during the first week after their 2010 Tohoku quake, as it was one of the only forms of reliable communication to be had.

Consider that even when cellular communications do go down temporarily, they are among the first bits of infrastructure to be restored. There are specialized communications teams such as the one provided by the Cisco TACOPS team, and the nonprofit Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC) whose sole purpose is going in rapidly to help reestablish communications and net access for communities that have been hit by disaster.

The American Red Cross has their “DigiDOC” Or “Digital Operations Center” to monitor social media during disasters, and is also making an effort to provide mobile phone charging stations and net access in shelters, as they see how helpful this is with getting people connected to their families and friends via social media, which helps get them out of the shelter and started on the path to recovery faster. Here’s a recent article from their site: “Improved Access to Technology Can Save Lives in Emergencies”. Red Cross also has many amazingly helpful smart phone apps which help people to find their local shelter in a disaster, and provide useful information for dealing with many specific types of disasters and emergencies, plus how to prepare in advance.

Secondly, disasters are far more than just the “during a disaster” phase, or “response phase”. Social media is useful in all phases of disaster, before during and long after. Even on the rare occasions when social media is not easily accessible at the center of a major disaster location, it is still working everywhere else, and people outside of a hard-hit disaster area are instantly sharing whatever information they can get from the disaster site via social media. If we know how to monitor and make use of this information that is being shared via social media by those outside of the disaster area about those inside the disaster area, it enhances our situational awareness, and our ability to help our community to recover.

Emergency managers nationwide and worldwide are now turning to social media more and more during all phases of disasters to communicate with their communities on the platforms where they are active in their daily lives. It’s only natural that they will turn to social media for information and assistance during a disaster just as they do on a day-to-day basis.

It’s not uncommon for people to think that social media will be inaccessible in disasters, but respectfully, it is not correct, and the wrong way to consider information sharing during disasters.


As I said, I talked to Mr. Ryan Torok who wrote the “How reliable is social media during a disaster?” article. He was pleased to discuss the article, and wished he had met me before he wrote the article. We had a nice discussion of where he could go for more information for future articles, which I look forward to reading.

I also contacted Mark Benthien, communications director of the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), who was quoted in the other article. I expressed my concern with the article and asked that he read my response. He agreed completely with my response to the article, and said he had been misquoted.

As I travel the country teaching the NDPTC social media course (FEMA PER-304), I hear this “social media unreliable during disasters” concept mentioned occasionally, and I always try to take the time to knock it down, since otherwise the result is that people who should be learning to use social media in disasters will use it as an excuse to stubbornly refuse to learn. This is my attempt to bust this myth once and for all.

a basic twitter geocode search how-to

This is a quick and rough tutorial that I just completed for a volunteer effort that I’m helping with. I thought it might helpful others, so I’m sharing it here – hope it’s helpful. ^sr


1 - Go to Bing Maps to get the latitude/longitude for the search:


2 - enter the location in the search bar. if you have an address, include it, but you can also use a town name and state, or a town name and country.

NOTE: On occasion you will get more than one result – usually when this happens, if you can’t verify the incident location in the information provided, seek to verify location by searching for additional information, starting with Google Maps, then Wikipedia. (or if you have team members familiar with the incident location, ask for assistance in verifying.)

2a – Take the time to drop your newly copied lat/long in to Google Maps and confirm visually that this is the location you are wanting to search.


It’s good to double-check your results on a couple of platforms.


3 - The latitude/longitude result will appear on the left of the Bing window. I recommend you open a “worksheet” (such as a plaintext document or notes document) which is sort of like “digital scratch paper”.

Here’s the above setup if you want to just copy/paste it to your own worksheet:


4 - Copy the lat/long and paste it to your worksheet.

5 - Also paste the lat/long into the placeholder area of the saved geocode template. (double click the underlined area in the geocode template; that’s where the lat/long goes – make sure there are no spaces between the colon and the comma, or the geocode search won’t work when you take it to twitter search)

6 - Now copy and paste the entire geocode from the worksheet over to twitter search window.

7 - The search above is set to a search radius of “10km” or 10 kilometers.You can make the size of the search as small as .1km or as large as 2500km. Just delete the 10 and change it to the size you wish to search.

I tend to start with a moderate size search, depending on the estimated population density. (run some test searches to see what kind of results you get, then change the search radius, making it larger and smaller to see the effect.)

8 - If you aren’t finding the information you expected to see in this area by making the search smaller and larger, t’s time to add some additional search terms to your geocode search.

Try adding words that are common to the type of incident that you are searching. For instance, if there is a severe windstorm or hurricane, first you would try searches using words like “storm”, “trapped”, “damage”, “power out”, then later in the disaster you’d be running searches such as “shelter” “closed” “open”, “missing” “lost”. Also remember to occasionally run question mark searches, like this:

[? geocode:46.189770,-123.833946,10km]

Question mark searches will often help you to spot needs and trends.

9 - Once you’re getting useful search results, take the information that you’re finding back to your group and share. If you think it’s important, remember to save the URL for the page so that you can get back to it later.

I’m in the process of putting together a search term directory/index for various types of disasters. I’ll link to it here once I have that done or well underway.

Additionally: It’s also helpful to have some common geocode searches prepared in a spreadsheet in advance. Here’s what that can look like:


I’m going to build a prepared template in googledocs and share soon.


description of how to convert military location coordinates

to a useable lat/long format for geocode searches.

Converter for military location coordinates to lat/long for geocode searches is here: http://www.earthpoint.us/convert.aspx


Some military coordinates are given like this: N112131 E1253766 -copy and enter that into the “Position” window in the converter, then pres “Calc” button to get lat/long result – it will look like this:

Degrees Lat Long 11.3586111°, 125.6350000°

-take out the “°” and the space, so that it looks like this:


-now copy this lat/long to your geocode search.


NOTE: Also see in-depth instructions and search walk-through here: “finding and sharing disaster info on twitter” on this blog. ^sr

Old and New Disaster Workers Learning to Work Together (re-post from FirstResponder.gov)


This is an article I wrote for FirstResponder.gov shortly after Hurricane Sandy, and it still appears to be relevant. I am hearing similar discussions amongst my #SMEM and #VOST friends, so I wanted to share it over here on my own blog. The original post can still be found here.

Old and New Disaster Workers Learning to Work Together

I’m in the fortunate position of being connected to long-established disaster volunteer organizations, and to some of the new social media-based Virtual Technical Communities (VTCs).

The VTCs and ad hoc groups are born from and are already up to speed on social media, and they bring new enthusiasm to disaster efforts. Communities have always responded spontaneously to their own disasters, but social media has now made it easier and faster for these new groups to form, organize, and deploy.

Unfortunately, social media also has a way of amplifying complaints – some legitimate and some unrealistic. Many in established emergency preparedness and response organizations struggle to adapt to the new “open” concept and haven’t yet embraced the interactive and open nature of social media. Most now realize the need, but don’t yet have a strategy or plan.

Many in the VTCs–and especially in the ever-newly-forming ad hoc groups which occur locally for every disaster–are new to the disaster process of delivery and long-term recovery, and don’t understand the complex web of disaster roles and responsibilities of local and federal governments, emergency management (EM) regulatory agencies, and utilities like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Red Cross, Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD), and more. Therefore, the newcomers are frustrated that established agencies can’t move faster both on the ground and in engagement with them both on-site and on the Internet.

While there are many shining examples of social media use and crowdsourcing by some EM agencies, they are not yet the norm. Many have been slow to embrace social media and the open concept, and slower still to use collaborative docs and other new crowdsourcing tools. Both the VTCs and the public expect their government agencies to be accessible and expect to see active social media accounts.

Some of the frustrations from both sides have merit, and some of the frustrations from both sides about the other are based on misunderstandings and a lack of trust. Most of these issues will resolve themselves soon, so I look forward to the day when we can all work together.
One example of this struggle for which I’ve had a front-row seat is in the world of disaster recovery and VOAD. My social media colleague Marlita Reddy-Hjelmfelt and I are assisting National VOAD with social media during the Hurricane Sandy recovery effort. National VOAD was so busy with recovery coordination that their social media presence was briefly unattended, which resulted in some undeserved negative posts. This was easily and quickly remedied by regularly answering questions and comments, and posting.

The next step is to move toward active use of social media to collaborate with other VOAD organizations and cooperate with VTCs and spontaneous volunteers by coordinating recovery efforts via social media tools such as crowdsourcing, collaborative documents via emergency workflow models being developed by VTCs, the Social Media for Emergency Management (SMEM) Community, and Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST) initiatives.

twitter lists for disasters

Next to building a network of trusted relationships with agencies, orgs and people via social media in advance of a disaster, one of the most important tools to build in advance are twitter lists and social media lists. These are places that you can look to fast to see what’s being reported in your area, and to see what your trusted network of peer agencies and organizations are saying.

I recommend building two lists for your area (one each of these two if you are responsible for multiple regions):

1- Local EM List

Put all accounts on this list that are related to sharing official information for their agency that affect the public during possible emergencies or disasters.

Emergency management, all public safety related organizations, state police, local police, sheriff, fire & rescue, public heath agencies, city and county accounts, department of transportation, power company, red cross, disaster related volunteer groups CERT, VOAD, local ARES (amateur radio emergency services) and ham clubs, in other words, anyone that you would want to hear from and communicate with in a potential emergency or disaster.

2 – Local Media List

Add all local media accounts such as local radio station accounts, newspapers, any television stations that cover news in your area (even if they are not right in your city), local news blogs, etc…

How do you find the accounts to follow? Start with the accounts that are easy to find. As you find new accounts, look at their followers, the accounts that they follow, and add accounts to your list as appropriate.

If you are responsible for a county with two or more large population centers, you may want to have a list for each of them. A state EM agency might ask each county to make their own list and then the state can track each of these lists.

More on twitter lists:

Twitter recently changed lists so that each twitter account can have 1,000 lists, and each list can have up to 5,000 accounts max listed on it. (for EM purposes you won’t need anywhere near that many people.)

FACEBOOK INTEREST LISTS: My VOST – SMEM colleague Marlita Reddy-Hjelmfelt just posted this very helpful guide: How To: Create a Facebook Interest List on her “The Red Elm” blog.

HOW-TO: twitter  post on using twitter lists

new VOST – SMEM twitter monitoring suggestion using tweetdeck (update)

Many of our #SMEM and #VOST folks have been struggling since the loss of tweetgrid.

The big missing piece for monitoring and searches since the recent twitter API changes brought down tweetgrid is not just a loss of easy viewing with multicolumn searches. We lost the ability to set up all of these searches once so that we don’t all have to build the searches individually. Tweetgrid was a huge timesaver and also allowed us to rapidly share searches with the public.

When we were on a VOST debrief call Monday for the Owyhee Fire VOST activation, we were talking about searches and monitoring, and it occurred to me that if we set up an activation-specific tweetdeck space using the activation-specific twitter account, we can list it as a resource along with our other VOST tools, and share the password with the team. Then any of us can go log in and use that set of  searches from that account any time we like without everyone having to rebuild all of those searches.

Colleague and PNW2VOST team lead Marlita Reddy-Hjelmfelt was leading the meeting and she agreed that this was a good idea, and said that she also thought about doing this. Jeff Phillips agreed it was worth trying, and we quickly tried it on tweetdeck to see if two of us could be logged in – it worked just fine.

This is not as good a solution as tweetgrid was, but it can be a big time-saver, and well worth the trouble of setting up on medium to large disaster activations. It still doesn’t allow us to share multicolumn searches out to the public fast, but at least we can use tweetgrid as a team tool.

So the procedure would be:

– Decide that the disaster activation is big enough to justify the time it will take to set up the activation-specific tweetgrid account and then set up text, hashtag and geocode searches.

– Use the activation-specific twitter account and email account to set up tweetdeck, then build a preliminary set of text, hashtag and geocode searches in columns on that account.

– Save the tweetdeck URL, account info and password to the shared resources document for your VOST team.

Note: This is also potentially a useful tool for all EMs and disaster org folks who may want to set up a specific twitter and tweetdeck account to share with a trusted team in a specific geographic location. For example you could set up an account to share with your “trusted agents” and set up to search local hashtags, place-names and maybe geocode searches for likely disaster areas – for instance if you have regions that are likely to flood…

If you have this account set up and ready, you could use it to train during drills, then everyone will know where it is and how to use it when needed.

Maybe others are already doing this? I’d love to hear from you.


Update: @JeremyOps mentioned via twitter that he uses this technique:

“@JeremyOps Jul 17, 8:56am via Twitter for iPhone
@sct_r my team does this using the web app. Only challenge is everyone needs to refresh to see when someone makes changes to searches/column”

Using Advanced twitter search (helpful for smartphone and tablet searches!)

Occasionally when you find yourself without access to a computer, performing advanced twitter searches can be difficult; especially if you don’t have the “advanced search operators” memorized. (Attention: twitter app makers -I haven’t located a good advanced search phone app for twitter – help!*)

Luckily, twitter has a great page discussing this on their website.

Unfortunately, the operators were saved on the above page as an image, making it difficult to save them to my notes. So I transcribed them to text, and here they are – I advise you to save these to your notes on your phone so that you have them handy if needed. I also added a simple goecode search example to the bottom of the list. You would need to find the lat/long and insert in place of the one that is there for an example.

Using Advanced twitter search (from twitter help center)

Operator:  =  Finds tweets:

twitter search  =  containing both “twitter and “search”. This is the default operator.

“happy hour”  =  containing the exact phrase “happy hour”.

love OR hate  =  containing either “love” or “hate” (or both).

beer -root  =  containing “beer” but not “root.

#haiku  =  containing the hashtag “haiku”.

from:alexiscold  =  sent from the person “alexiscold”.

to:techcrunch  =  sent to person “techcrunch”.

@mashable  =  referencing person “mashable”.

“happy hour” near:”san francisco”  =  containing the exact phrase “happy hour” and sent near “san francisco”.

near:NYC within:15mi  =  sent within 15 miles of “NYC”.

superhero since:2010-12-27  =  containing “superhero” and sent since date “2010-12-27″.

ftw until:2010-12-27  =  containing “ftw” and sent up to date “2010-12-27″.

movie -scary :)  =  containing “movie”, but not “scary”, and with a positive attitude.

flight :(  =  containing “flight” and with a negative attitude.

traffic ?  =  containing “traffic” and asking a question.

hilarious filter:links  =  containing “hilarious” and linking to URLs.

news source:twitterfeed  =  containing “news” and entered via TwitterFeed.

ALSO geocode searches: 

geocode:45.523452,-122.676207,10km  =  searches a specific lat/long within 10km

(smallest possible geosearch is .1km and largest is 2500km)

you can use geocode along with combinations of the above search operators

Note: find the lat/long for a place or an address here:


If you’re an emergency manager or disaster organization employee that’s responsible for a specific region or place, you may want to find and save some lat/longs ahead of time to speed up your search creation.

Also see:

 Twitter for Newsrooms: #Report 

reason for this post: this morning while trying to do some advanced searches from my iPhone, I realized that you cannot get to the advanced search twitter page from an iPhone or iPad because as soon as you enter the URL “twitter.com/search-advanced” in a mobile browser, you’re directed to twitter mobile app and told that the page you are searching for doesn’t exist : (

* If you know of a good twitter advanced search app for iPhone or Android, please post in the comments.


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