Earthquake Bots

Bill Snitzer Quakebot

Never mind if the Russians used Twitter bots to influence the United States presidential election, what is the deal with Earthquake bots? Are they causing earthquakes? Of course not!  But are they?

Recently the system set up to notify news organizations, specifically the Los Angeles Times, regarding tremors set off an earthquke alert that the Times posted on its website. Regrettably  that notification turned out to be false. The earthquake had happpened, but in June 29,1925 around Santa Barbara, California.  It was a 6.8 magnitude and if it HAD happened June 21, 2017 when it was reported, it would have been felt by millions and set off a mild panic in Southern California. The 1925 quake toppled buildings and killed 13 persons.

Quakebot a twitter account administered by Bill Snitzer gets its information from the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Quakebot even writes the story for the newspaper(s). The way it works is : an alert notifies a Times reporter ; they do some fact checking (not in this case, maybe) and publish the story.

It is usually a perfect use of modern technology except this time researchers at Cal Tech were doing some work regarding the 1925 quake and somehow through their integration with the USGS they set off the faulty report, tweet and story. 

False alarms are bane of early warning systems and seismic appliances throughout the globe. They undermine public confidence and make the population ignore genuine important notices of oncoming earthquakes. 

Nothwithstanding this error, the rapid gathering of data by the USGS and the timely transfer of the information through robots by alerts on twitter to news organizations is a useful excercise than gets the meessage out and may lead to less harm and death during future earthquakes. 

by Diarmuid O'Dea


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