We interrupt this August clickstream for an important announcement. Your Seattle neighborhood’s (pick one): “community center / playground / apartment building / commuter lot / bakery / convenience store” has just been “vandalized / burgled / graffitied / set ablaze” and was the scene of an emergency that was phoned in while you were “at work / out shopping/ checking your email / asleep in bed”) How do we know that? We just read about it — on Twitter!
Has Jet City gone “Minority Report?” You be the judge. Last week, a first-of-its-kind social media experiment unfolded in our techno-savvy “LongLat” that raised some interesting questions, along with a few eyebrows and some neck hairs. The story arc in this case is the role of emergent public information, Twitter microblogging and our metropolitan police.
The “emergency reports” in question did not emit the annoying high pitched squeal that intermitantly roadblocks TV viewers with seemingly random tests of the Emergency Broadcasting System. Nor was this a lesson in civic activism, such as the back channeling of Facebook messages that spread like wildfire throughout the streets of Cairo, Egypt, and sparked a revolution this Spring.
No, ours is a free society and the surprising authors of this particular Twitter stream (merely a trickle of what Twitter calls its ‘Firehose’ of information) was the Seattle Police Department who published the Tweets online.
Seattle’s citizenry, or netizenry in this instance, were eyewitnesses of an epic Twitter test that posed the question: What would happen if s city’s law enforcement division(s) tweeted the emergency calls that came into their department(s)? Call it the ultimate “social status update.”
As was subsequently reported in The New York Times, the experiment translated into an average of 40 Twitter messages an hour, for a total of 478 by the end of the day. The 140-characters-or-fewer fragments ranged from reports of car accidents and a suicide threat to hang-up calls and “suspicious person possible armed with sword.” (It omitted reports of domestic violence and child abuse, deeming them too personal, though suicide would seem to fall into that category.)
@SeattlePD attracted widespread attention for its crimefighting tweets. Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the department, declared the experiment a hit. “It got people talking about crime in Seattle, which is at a record low,” he said. Sergeant Whitcomb said the Twitter messages raised awareness that crime-fighting was a group effort and that the department relied on calls from citizens
It was so successful, he said, that the department might start posting its 911 calls full-time, but only for readers who sign up and if the posts could be automated. By automation, he meant that dispatchers would press a button that would categorize the calls (“weapons” rather than “possible sword”), which would, alas, cost the messages some of their quirky flavor.
To be honest, we were unable to confirm the status of any Facebook “Likes,” Google +1’s or the number of new Twitter followers engendered by the crime reports. Ironically, social media sites like Facebook and FourSquare have been accused of broadcasting information about people away on vacation who found their homes burglarized upon their return.
The Seattle Police Department will launch another experiment next month they have said, this time with officers in the field sending out Twitter messages about what they did on their calls only, of course, after they have resolved the incident.
Followed online by tweeple in other cities, and presumably by other police departments, the Twitter experiment yielded one empathetic comment that was reported online: “Anyone upset over the @SeattlePD tweets needs to calm down. Twitter is 99% inane chatter anyway (and 1% important Beiber news).” [24×7]