Twitter can predict a riot

When disaster strikes, it’s instinctive for people to whip out their phones. But not to dial 999 – just to post about it on social media.

Twitter can predict a riot

Research from Cardiff University has shown that people’s tendency to sound the alarm via social media can be used to the authorities’ advantage, even if they aren’t getting the first alert from civilians. The researchers analysed 1.6 million tweets relating to the London riots in 2011 with an algorithm-based computer system that looked at features such as the time they were posted, the location where they were posted and what its content was.

This information can help pinpoint information such as where certain events are happening or could happen, based on crowds gathering. 

The study found that scanning Twitter would have detected serious incidents during disruptions – like windows being broken during the London riots in 2011 – quicker than they were reported to the Metropolitan Police Service. More specifically, this method would have a detected the first signs of trouble a whole hour and 23 minutes faster than when the police received any report of the riot.

If police officers employ this system, the hope is they can better prepare for and manage disruptive events. This study’s findings also comes on the heels of the chief constable of West Midlands Police’s announcement that the police are expecting repeats of the 2011 riots due to yearlong budget cuts.

“In this research, we show that online social media are becoming the go-to place to report observations of everyday occurrences – including social disorder and terrestrial criminal activity,” the study’s co-author Dr Pete Burnap said in a statement. “We will never replace traditional policing resource on the ground but we have demonstrated that this research could augment existing intelligence gathering and draw on new technologies to support more established policing methods.”

So as technology tightens its grip on our daily routines, all you may have to do to let the authorities know about some chaos is a quick 140-character message – which is cool, you’ll get more followers that way. Better for everyone.

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