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Crazy Cool in L.A

A fire department taps into microblogging to keep itself on top of situations.

Last May, Los Angeles firefighters had their hands full. A blaze was spreading through 800 acres of Griffith Park but they only knew what was happening from the side of the fire where their trucks were parked. To get a sense of the extent of the conflagration, firefighter Brian Humphrey sent messages to strangers on the other side of the fire--explaining who he was and asking them to call him right away.

How did he know whom to contact? Humphrey twitters.

Not as in the birds that buzz around trees. As in the technology of microblogging. Also called "burst" news, a twitter is a message of 140 characters or less, or about 20 to 25 words. Millions of people "in the know" can read these messages via phone, computer or another Internet-enabled device. The Twitter site and one called Jaiku, a similar service recently snapped up by Google, are the Coke and Pepsi of the microblogging world.

Because Humphrey twitters, it became apparent to him on the day of the fire that people were twittering about it. When he typed in and asked them to pick up their phones and call him, several did. "I said, 'Tell me what you're seeing. I don't have anyone on that side of the fire,'" he says. Those extra eyes helped the department tailor its fire-fighting strategy. The collective information from so many observers on the scene, sometimes dubbed "the wisdom of the crowd," allowed the department to serve the community better.

The LAFD's presence on Twitter surprised many Twitter subscribers. According to one named Beaker, "This is crazy cool...did you know the LAFD logs its calls to Twitter? What a cool idea." Hmm. "Cool government." Not usually part of the lexicon. Dozens of others also marveled at the LAFD's leap into new technologies.

In October, Santa Ana winds and arson kicked up a whole spate of devastating fires. About 500 people were subscribed to the fire department's feed for constant electronic updates. Many of them were news organizations that planned to disseminate the information. But those who twitter didn't have to wait for the media. They could get their information directly from the fire department. Twitter users who didn't normally get the department's updates could start to do so immediately.

For the department, twittering is an easy, free way to get important information out to the public. If, in the aftermath of, say, an earthquake, Los Angeles wanted to send out a boil water alert, one message could alert millions of people instantly. "It's even better than the Goodyear blimp flying around," says Humphrey, who also serves as the department's public information officer.

Many government officials view microblogging as one more disruption in an information-overloaded world. But Humphrey sees such important information as "connective." It may feel like overload to some, he suggests, because they have not learned how to pluck relevant information from the swirl around them. Governments have to learn how to fine-tune the technologies so they can quickly sift out the information best suited to them.

With RSS, or real simple syndication, the LAFD filters out a lot of the daily overload. It has set up searches on various sites, not just Twitter, using key words such as "explosion," "fire," "fire department," "bombing" and "terrorist." Then, as Humphrey puts it, "you don't visit your favorite Web sites, they visit you." For instance, he knew about the Minnesota bridge collapse before the first fire truck arrived. That's because some people stuck on the bridge started twittering. The LAFD picked up the buzz.

That particular news wasn't relevant to Los Angeles--but other news bits could be. If people were twittering about bombs going off first in New York, then Chicago, then Denver, the LAFD might conclude that the danger was heading west to the country's second-largest city, and use that trend analysis to take action. That turns microblogging into an intelligence tool. The people who twitter "become our reporters in the field," Humphrey explains.

Often, when you hear about the next "next technology," it can seem silly or pointless. People do microblog to tell their friends they're washing their dog or heading to McDonald's for a burger. But government departments don't have to indulge in those kinds of tangents.

Humphrey says he investigates every digital tool he learns about to see if it can benefit the LAFD. "We can no longer afford to work at the speed of government," he says. "We must remain relevant to the people we serve.

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