CU grad student uses Twitter to aid Haiti

CU graduate student Kate Starbird and Project Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis are using Twitter to aid relief efforts in Haiti.

“Tweak the Tweet” is a means of organizing information for those communicating on Twitter about the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. Starbird, a 34-year-old PHD student focusing on social media and education, said the program is employing a different use of Twitter to aid those in need.

“’Tweaking the Tweet’ is not a software system,” Starbird said. “It’s just an idea of how people can use Twitter differently during times of crisis to communicate information differently so that computers can make sense of it and people can react to it.”

“Tweak the Tweet” uses emergency-related hashtags on Twitter to organize information, according to Project EPIC’s
Web site.

A hashtag is the # symbol that is placed before the name of a topic someone is searching for on Twitter. The hashtag is a way for people to find tweets that share a common topic, according to Tech for Luddites Web site.

There are two main types of hashtags used in the “Tweak the Tweet” program: Main hashtags and data hashtags, which are listed on Project Epic’s Web site.

By tweeting using these hashtags, emergency communications become more machine-readable and are passed on to a number of sources, according to EPIC’s Web site.

Haitians in need of assistance can text a family member from the ground who can then translate their needs into a tweet with hashtags. These tweets are then organized into a list where the name, need and location of the person are clearly read and sent to sources where they can be accessed by relief efforts, Starbird said.

“The hashtags let the computer know the next three words will be a location or a contact and if it knows that the word need came before it, it’s easier to classify things, and make it easier for the computer to help,” Starbird said. “It can process them in near real time.”

Students have said they are excited at the efforts being made by Starbird and her colleagues.

“I think it’s a really good idea,” said Kelli Dorband, a 22-year-old senior accounting major. “It’s awesome that she took initiative to help someone else in need.”

Dorband said she thinks that despite the current conditions in Haiti, “Tweak the Tweet” provides hope for those affected and their families.

“It might be hard because no one can really get into Haiti right now,” Dorband said. “But definitely if people in Haiti are connecting with tweets, it should help.”

Virginia Arnett, a 20-year-old junior music major, said she thinks that through the use of detail the program can be particularly helpful.

“This will definitely be effective especially if people can give specific details,” Arnett said.

Starbird and her colleagues have been following tweets and monitoring the lists created around the clock, she estimates around 20 hours a day.

Starbird said efforts are being made to ensure “Tweak the Tweet” is as user-friendly as possible.

“What we’re trying to do is make the syntax as useable as possible and see how many people are using it and try to push it out there to as many people as possible so they’ll use it,” Starbird said.

She said since launching the syntax, she and her colleagues have been feeling a lot of different emotions.

“We’re nervous that we’re not helping enough but we’re hopeful that we’re helping some, that we can help more in the future and that somehow we can make a difference,” Starbird said. “It’s not our normal role as researchers, so it’s emotional in a different way.”

For more information on getting involved with translating tweets, or to find CU’s EPIC program on Twitter, visit Project EPIC’s Web site.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Sarah Simmons at

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