I have proposed a microsyntax for sending and receiving structured Twitter messages during and relating to disasters. See the emergency+codes tag for all discussion.
Why Not Hashtags?
One of the problems with microsyntax based on hashtags is that hashtags are words in specific languages, so there is an immediate divergence in this case with English and French, and perhaps Creole, as well?
This is countered by the creation of a second glossary of hashtags in French, but the equivalence is not immediately obvious.
The second problem is that people aren’t using the templates as defined. For example, “#name American & UF Alumni Lee Strickland is stuck there alive’ does have a name in it, but it’s buried. To use a simple metric, a stupid program wouldn’t be able to extract ‘Lee Strickland’ from that.
I think that a few other approaches could work better even given the requirements that a disaster imposes:
- People will have only the most primitive communication capabilities, like cell phones, or public computers. (We have to imagine these at least, or Twitter and microsyntax can’t play a role at all.)
- We have to rely on Twitter as the basic platform, although it is possible to imagine external applications that are designed to work with Twitter, so long as they don’t require specialized software or hardware on the communication device. This means that specialized applications can be developed that interoperate with Twitter. As just one example, geolocational elements could be used to display messages relative to locations in a stricken area, like Haiti in this case.
- Hashtags are a general purpose tool, like a hammer, but even the best hammer can’t be used for all purposes. A hammer is a bad wrench, for example. In general, hashtags are intended to represent themes or topics that a post is about. Extending them to act as keywords is attractive at the moment, because various search tools currently identify the ‘#abc’ structure. But using hashtags consumes too many characters unnecessarily in a 104 character contex.
The Bang Microsyntax
My recommendations at this point for Disaster microsyntax are these:
- We should dedicate ‘!’ to indicate that a message is associated with a specific named disaster or emergency. This use of ‘bang’ or ‘exclamation mark’ should take precedence over other possible uses of the character. I propose we call this system ‘Bang’. Some international organization — perhaps the UN? Red Cross? — should be responsible for the naming of the disaster. This should be the first element of the post. For example, ‘!Katrina’ would have appeared at the head of all emergency tweets related to Katrina. Note that this is in distinction to the use of #katrina in a post, which does not indicate that it is an emergency post, just someone commenting on Katrina, for example in regard to local Lousiana politics.
- Twitter and related applications, like Twitter cllients, should be extended to support the use of bang in obvious ways. Note that this possibly means that Twitter could give preference to the passing of emergency messages, if necessary.
- Geolocation is more general than emergency, and some general convention should be used for that. I have advocated the so-called ‘geoslash’ notation, but this is a critical part of the whole picture.
- The syntax of emergency messages should be structured enough so that all parts of the message are defined elements, but loose enough that order of the various elements is arbitrary.
- A collection of two and three character codes based on bang should be developed to indicate various sorts of information useful in emergencies. For example, ‘!@’ could stand for the name of a person, based on the use of ‘@’ in Twitter and other applications. ‘!@@’ could be used for organizations, businesses, and so on. ‘!?’ could represent a question being asked, and ‘!!’ could be used for things desired, needed or the like.
- A general model for adding a note or status to any defined element could rely on ‘:’. For example, ‘!@john jones: alive’ would indicate that John Jones is alive (in English).
Here’s an example, for a hypothetical disaster, a hurricane called ‘Bette’ that has hit the eastern seaboard of the US:
!bette !@john jones: alive /wellfleet hospital/
This is an emergency message stating that John Jones is alive and is located at Wellfleet Hospital. Alternatively, the hospital could have been identified as an emergency-related organization or business, with ‘!@@wellfleet hospital’ instead of being treated as a location.
!bette @carlabreck !?@sam ying: with you?
This is directed to @carlabreck using her twitter ID, asking the status of Sam Ying, specifically whether he is with her.
!bette /usps, provincetown MA/ !!food blankets: 20 people stranded here !!medevac: 1 compound fracture
This indicates a request ‘!!’ for food and blankets for 20 people stranded at the post office in Provincetown, and a request for a medevac for someone with a compound fracture.
Note that this message could be jumbled in different ways — !bette !!medevac: 1 compound fracture /usps, provincetown MA/ !!food blankets: 20 people stranded here — and it would still have the same meaning.
!bette /usps, provincetown MA/ !@hassan haque: compound fracture of the lower right leg
This is an accompanying message to the previous, indicating the name of the person with the compound fracture.
!bette /home depot, hyannisport/: roof has blown off the main building and is blocking Main Street www.sto.ly/8797gd
This is an informational post, identifying a hazard so that authorities monitoring might do something.
Getting Into Circulation
I am open to working with other groups interested in implementing tools and techniques to circulate this microsyntax for emergency messaging, or something like it.