Twitter hashtags for emergency coordination and disaster relief

I know I’ve been beating the drum about hashtags for a while. People are either lukewarm to them or are annoyed and hate them. I get it. I do. But for some stupid reason I just can’t leave them alone.

Anyway, today I think I saw a glimmer of the promise of the hashtag concept revealed.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, consider this status update:

Twitter / nate ritter: #sandiegofire 300,000 peopl...

You’ll notice that the update starts out with “#sandiegofire”. That’s a hashtag. The hash is the # symbol and the tag is sandiegofire. Pretty simple.

Why use them? Well, it’s like adding metadata to your updates in a simple and consistent way. They’re not the most beautiful things ever, but they’re pretty easy to use. They also follow Jaiku’s channel convention to some extent, but break it in that you can embed hashtags into your actual post, like so:

Twitter / Mr Messina: @nateritter thanks for keep...

Following the , this simple design means that you can get more mileage out of your 140 characters than you might otherwise if you had to specify your tags separately or in addition to your content.

Anyway, you get the idea.

Hashtags become all the more useful now that Twitter supports the “track” feature. By simply sending ‘track [keyword]‘ to Twitter by IM or SMS, you’ll get real-time updates from across the Twitterverse. It’s actually super useful and highly informative.

Hashtags become even more useful in a time of crisis or emergency as groups can rally around a common term to facilitate tracking, as demonstrated today with the San Diego fires (in fact, it was similar situations around Bay Area earthquakes that lead me to propose hashtags in the first place, as I’d seen people Twittering about earthquakes and felt that we needed a better way to coordinate via Twitter).

Earlier today, my friend Nate Ritter started twittering about the San Diego fires, starting slowly and without any kind of uniformity to his posts. He eventually began prefixing his posts with “San Diego Fires”. Concerned that it would be challenging for folks to track “san diego fires” on Twitter because of inconsistency in using those words together, I wanted to apply hashtags as a mechanism for bringing people together around a common term (that Stowe Boyd incidently calls groupings).

I first checked Flickr’s Hot Tags to see what tag(s) people were already using to describe the fires:

Popular Tags on Flickr Photo Sharing

I picked “” — the tag that I thought had the best chance to be widely adopted, and that would also be recognizable in a stream of updates. I pinged Nate and around 4pm with my suggestion, and he started using it. Meanwhile, Dan Tentler (a co-organizer who I met at ETECH last year) was also twittering, blogging and shooting his experience, occasionally using #sandiegofire as his tag. Sometime later Adora (aka Lisa Brewster, another BarCamp San Diego co-organizer) posted a status using the #sandiegofire hashtag.

Had we had a method to disperse the information, we could have let people on Twitter know to track #sandiegofire and to append that hashtag to their updates in order to join in on the tracking stream (for example, KBPS News would have been easier to find had they been using the tag) (I should point out that the Twitter track feature actually ignores the hashmark; it’s useful primarily to denote the tag as metadata in addition to the update itself) .

Fortunately, Michael Calore from Wired picked up the story, but it might have come a little late for the audience that might have benefitted the most (that is, folks with Twitter SMS in or around affected areas).

In any case, hashtags are far from perfect. I have no illusions about this.

But they do represent what I think is a solid convention for coordinating ad-hoc groupings and giving people a way to organize their communications in a way that the tool (Twitter) does not currently afford. They also leave open the possibility for external application development and aggregation, since a Twitter user’s track terms are currently not made public (i.e. there is no way for me to know what other people are tracking across Twitter in the same way that I can see which tags have the most velocity across Flickr). So sure, they need work, but the example of #sandiegofire now should provide a very clear example of the problem I’d like to see solved. Hashtags are my best effort at working on this problem to date; I wonder what better ideas are out there waiting to be proposed?

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

31 thoughts on “Twitter hashtags for emergency coordination and disaster relief”

  1. Chris-
    For better or worse, the fires in SD are far from over… I suspect twittering will be going on for days – this grouping around tags in twitterspace is really useful.
    I find it interesting how a #tag emerges …

  2. The biggest problem appears to be the unifying choice of keyword itself and uptake rather than the syntax implementation. While I like hashtags for being in your face, at the same time tracking just the keyword – as the wired commentary shows – is all that’s needed. This is a key reason I don’t tag content unless the keyword isn’t included in the content I’m tagging.

    My only suggestion would be something along the lines of a live meme engine for keywords or hashtags that may go some way to unifying choices, especially in emergency situations. That along with a hashtag suggest feature, such that as you choose a keyword by entering a hash, a suggestion box drops down with current and pre-existing memes affording auto-complete. Or just have words underlined in text like a spell checker, with keywords listed as alternatives. This would require an API, client support and in the non-hashtag version; serious connection scaling & local caches. A simpler method would be subscriptions to the keyword memes though I’m not sure how effective it would be noise wise. Segregation via community keyword memes users could track is an alternate, if it scaled…

    That’s just the tagging itself. When our(Australia) recent election leader debate happened, I found myself tracking multiple keywords (howard/rudd/worm) for that one subject. Context was a problem with keywords clashing and I can see the same happening with hashtags unless unique to those contexts tags are used. What defines any object and gives it identity is the aggregation of attributes. That more than anything is the difficult part. In context content matches is what the Google gods try hard to achieve and we can only look to search engine algorithms to solve the hard parts of that problem.
    On the users end, adding context to what we track with multiple keyword expressions seems to me the best option. With the option to allow the search engine to include ‘related’ keyword results iteratively if we so choose to. Thereby being exposed to new keywords we can then use when managing our search queries. I call this Query Gardening. I’m always doing it with blog keyword searches via crazy boolean logic expressions to filter for the content I want. It frustrates me that I can’t do ( intel (UMPC | MID)) type queries with Twitter tracking. I want search engines to recommend and alter my tracked queries based on query gardening UI features. I keep hearing about ‘intel macs’ when I track just intel and wish there was a thumbs down button that learnt over time (from my hitting that thumb a lot)to add -mac to my query.

    Thats my 2c,

  3. Chris, have you tested this?

    I was very excited by this prospect when tracking was launched but over several days I could not get Twitter to give me notifications on any #tags. In fact it looked like they were actively blocking them.

    If I added tracking for #stupid, I got no hits despite sending multiple tweets from different accounts which contained that term. If I tried just the word “stupid” and repeated the test, it worked fine.

    I haven’t tried since. Perhaps it was an early bug?

  4. @Conor: according to Blaine from Twitter, they strip out the hashes… so ‘track #stupid’ and ‘track stupid’ are the same thing. Might have been a bug?

  5. Thanks for this explanation–I saw those hashtags on Nate’s Twitters during the fires but didn’t know what they were. I tried Googling them, but… how can you Google them? I didn’t want to bug Nate during the fires and forgot once they were over. Glad I finally know what the heck they are and I definitely like them. ^_^


  6. Hi

    I am trying to get local communities to communicate using twitter, cell phones and other.

    For quick access I suggest cell phone to twitter, the I collect know twitter accounts into a friendfeedroom. If I don’t know the twitter account I use feedmysearch to locate relevant search terms and I collect these in the room as well.

    In order to get info back quickly you can use twitter’s direct message to email and then set it up to sms. and other can convert search terms to direct messages > you then arrange email to sms and there you have the redirected comms. You can also send (email) these updates to your friendfeed room.

    I have setup my account at friendfeed here

    and my Simon’s Town community get there news here
    This is the room where most of the community will congregate in time of need.

    I have also started a room for people who want to help teach communities to use online communication tools;,, hashtags, and other. You are invited to join and help me.

    The major problem I have is the technophobic nature of people in a local community. At the moment I provide classes for these to just make a start. They all use sms. All they now need to do is sms an alert to twitter. I then send the twitter feed to the room and there you go. A community adding value to the community.

    Here’s the WHALES room where you are invited to help. It’s new and your input will make it popular


    Johan Horak

  7. The crisis response team at is working on amplifying these hashtags and subjecting them to more structured peer review. Please get in touch with Ushahidi if you are interested in using Twitter for emergency response.

  8. i love hashtags, but one doubt remain: how can we put a link on it, and then accessing directly the “search results” for that hashtag without using the search engine?


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