U.S. embassies used to pass important security alerts to Americans abroad through word of mouth, Janice Jacobs, assistant secretary of State for consular affairs, said Friday.
Embassy consular sections relayed those warnings, called "warden messages" through pre-organized phone trees or by actually knocking on doors, she said. Later, embassies began sending mass emails to Americans who had registered with them, but those emails usually reached only a handful of citizens living or traveling in those countries.
When criminal gangs attacked city buses in Matamoros, Mexico, and kidnapped several Americans in April 2011, Jacobs said, the embassy immediately Tweeted out a warning, which was re-Tweeted across thousands of followers within two hours and featured on CNN.
Social information travels in the opposite direction too. Embassies frequently learn that an American has been arrested or injured abroad from family members or friends alerted on Twitter or Facebook, long before word reaches them through official government-to-government channels, she said.
Jacobs was speaking at the Real-Time Awareness conference organized by the State Department's Tech@State division.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has increasingly turned to Twitter and other social media to gather information about natural disasters or to relay information about emergency shelters and services to the public. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate warned, though, that emergency managers should impose the same measurement standards on social media information as they do on other parts of their mission.
"If you don't know what outcome you're trying to change, it's not going to help, because technology isn't magic," he said. "It's just a tool."
In FEMA's case, information culled from Twitter often has helped the agency predict when its assistance will be requested during an emergency -- and to start gathering resources -- without waiting for a formal request from a state governor's office. That can save precious moments when the federal agency does come in to aid local responders.
"Speed of response is the most perishable commodity you have," Fugate said. "So I'll look for anything that gets us to a decision faster and gets us to the right places."
Robert Kirkpatrick is director of U.N. Global Pulse, a United Nation Secretary General's initiative that examines social media use. In one project, Kirkpatrick's team found a nearly perfect correlation between the number of Indonesian Tweets complaining about the price of rice and actual price fluctuations.
Ultimately, Kirkpatrick hopes to use social media and other "big data" about local trends to predict the outbreak of famines, conflicts and other humanitarian disasters.
One barrier, he said, is some of the best predictive information is consumer and investment data held by banks, manufacturers and other private corporations. In early discussions, he said, companies generally have been open to sharing that data in some aggregated form that protects individuals' privacy and companies' competitive edge, he said. Those companies' interest in cooperating is driven as much or more by a desire to protect their investments in a country as by a corporate social responsibility, he said.
Panelists at the State conference were mostly unconcerned about the possibility of inaccurate information floating through the Twittersphere, noting that errors and hoaxes, such as the supposed "Gay Girl in Damascus" who blogged last spring about the Syrian regime's crackdown on Arab spring protesters, usually have been quickly corrected or exposed by other social media users. In that case, the alleged Syrian lesbian turned out to be an American man.
Saudi-born blogger and NPR production assistant Ahmed Al Omran said he isn't very concerned about Twitter's recent agreement to censor Tweets from certain countries after an official government request.
While the policy does acquiesce to official censorship, he said, the service also has promised to be completely transparent about what it has censored and at whose request. Twitter has said it won't censor Tweets outside the requesting country. That means anyone who wants to Tweet something controversial, or to read controversial Tweets, can simply change the country location in their profile, Al Omran said.