Using Twitter to Help Communities

Net Squared event

I’ve spoken and posted in the past about how geeks can help in emergencies. Today I flew up to San Francisco and spoke at a Net Squared event for non-profits about how they could best put Twitter to use.

My experiences in the San Diego fires of 2007 gave me an interesting outlook on how Twitter, as a tool, could be applied in different circumstances. Just a few months after (and some even during) the 2007 firestorm some agencies are scratching the surface of what’s possible with this service.

At the outset of my talk I made sure to be clear that Twitter is a tool. It’s a good one for some cases and organizations and useless for others. Don’t make Twitter the hammer and start looking at everything like a nail. Twitter does some things very well, but it doesn’t fit every organization’s goals.

Britt (who is awesome by the way) asked me a question in our pre-talk interview. “How could Twitter be used for non-profits?”. A question like that is too broad to answer. It’s like asking how a website could be used for a business. Instead, I came up with a set of advantages Twitter has which may be used to help determine if Twitter could be useful for your organization. If one of these criterion benefits your community without too many hurdles for adoption, then Twitter might be the right tool for you.

Twitter benefits

  1. Speed Using twitter, you can very easily publish information more than once per minute. If distribution speed is critical, regardless of the information being distributed, Twitter may be the tool for you.
  2. Non-website (source) based alerts Instant messaging, SMS/text messages on cell phones, RSS/Atom feeds, email alerts, badges/widgets on other sites, and other methods of distribution are available. If your community can’t be tethered to a website for it’s communications, Twitter can provide other methodologies to get that information out to them.
  3. Community publishing There are a few (slightly more technical) ways of aggregating a group of twitterers posts, which means you could have more people — even your community — pitching in to help publish pertinent information.

The limitations of Twitter

Yes, there are some limitations to Twitter — seemingly huge obstacles to its usefulness.

  1. Only text and links can be posted. No maps. No photos. No videos. Text and links are all you get.
  2. 140 character limit. URLs will get shortened wherever possible, but 140 characters is tough to get used to.
  3. No conversation threading. This can be tough to deal with when you’re used to discussion forums and such. Connecting with your community in this way is almost limited to real-time dialogue, which can limit the conversation’s depth and longevity.
  4. The API has a 70 post per hour limit. Note that from what I could tell, the web UI doesn’t have this limit, but I’m sure they wouldn’t like you posting more than that unless it was an emergency anyway.

There are other limitations as well which I’m not necessarily documenting here. But, the ones listed here can seem insurmountable. Trust me, they’re not. They merely make you work around them. But that work around is only about 15 minutes of work and then you’re set.

But why stop at Twitter?

Twitter was a great tool for the emergency situation we went through in southern California, but why stop there?

Here’s the thing. If you need criterium #2 (non-website based alerts), then publishing to Twitter should be your end goal.

The limitations to Twitter are definitely not insurmountable. So lets use Twitter for what it’s good at and go find something else which can help with the things it’s missing. We’ll put together a quick example prototype using services and websites which already exist.

The end result of the next 15-30 minutes, if you follow me, will be a website which will aggregate photos, videos, blog posts, tweets (twitter posts), for whatever context you would like. We could, for instance, create a site which would show all the different types of media and content on the San Diego fires. Additionally, it would be updated automatically whenever new content is created by you or anyone else (if you want to be that open) on whatever subject you’d like.

The prototype

We’ll do this in steps. But before we do, here’s the back-of-the napkin diagram of what we’re building.

Back of the napkin transcribed into pretties

  1. Grab RSS feeds from any websites you can. YouTube, Flickr, other Twitter accounts, blogs, etc. Many times, if you’re creative, you can get keyword (or “tag”) filtered RSS feeds. So, for instance, you can use the public Flickr feed for photos and add a few things to the URL which will let you filter based on tags.
  2. Create a account for your emergency, event, or organization. This part should be pretty easy.
  3. Add the feeds to the account. There’s a little tool or gear-looking icon in the bottom left of the screen. Click that and click the “Me Elsewhere” section. In the form that shows up, select “RSS feed” and paste in the feed’s URL. Do that for each service you want. Here’s an example of what it could look like.
  4. If you need that criterion #2 (update alerts via something other than the website itself), you can head over to and sign up for an account. This service allows you to take an RSS feed (like from the account you created) and push it back into a Twitter account.
  5. Grab the RSS feed for the account you just created. Paste the URL into the TwitterFeed service you created along with whatever Twitter account and password that you want new information to post to.

Now, one thing to note here is that if you’re dealing with emergencies, you probably want to have a script produced for you which will do the the RSS to Twitter push. The reason is that only pushes up to 5 new items every 30 minutes — certainly much less often than you’d want in a crisis. It’s not too difficult for a developer to do and could most likely be contracted for about $100 or so.

Although I could, I’m not going to develop and distribute a script like that here. Doing something like this would probably irritate a little because most service providers don’t like to be hit more than once every 30 minutes or more. In a crisis, you’d want to hit it probably once every 5 minutes or more. Plus, this is a prototype. Just a brainstorm.

Net Squared

This whole concept and prototype is what I talked about at the Net Squared event last Tuesday. If you missed it, I suggest keeping an eye on the NetSquared blog. They should have a podcast and video up soon.

NetSquared also has asked a specific question about how if and how non-profits could use Twitter, specifically. Feel free to join the conversation there as well.

If you’re interested in having me speak at your event, please feel free to contact me.

[tags]community, non-profit, netsquared, citizenspace, tara hunt, hashtags, twitter,, tumblr[/tags]

Nate Ritter lives in Austin, Texas (U.S.), popularized the #hashtag and creates web applications for a living. He also does miles and point hacking to enable cheap travel for his family. More here →

39 Comments on "Using Twitter to Help Communities"

  1. This looks awesome, will be looking over it closely for a talk on the same topic at conf in NOLA in March. Go NetSquared!

  2. This is really exciting. I found out about you during the San Diego fires. When I started following you on Twitter and realized that I was getting more valuable information from you alone than the major media outlets; I became excited about the potential of Twitter and this whole Web 2.0 trend that we are in.

    I knew right away that there was something valuable in what you were doing during the SD fires and I’m really excited to see that your actually following up on it.

    Apologize ahead of time for any spelling errors since I’m typing this on my iPhone.

    Chris (wizardElite)

  3. nate says:

    Thanks for your comments guys. I appreciate it.

    Marshall, let me know if I can help at all. I’m on the board of a non-profit as well called Giving Anonymously, so I have a genuine interest in using technology wherever possible. I’m also extremely interested in applying technology like this to problems with emergency and crisis events.

    Chris, I’d love to know how you found out about my San Diego fire twittering. Word of mouth? Blog posts? That’s awesome that it encouraged you. It’s been very encouraging for me to have a part in helping people during that time. The responses from the community have been amazing.

  4. It was actually thru Twitter that I found out about you and what you were doing. I started following you and KPBS on Twitter and that’s when I really started using Twitter more seriously.

  5. Tom says:

    I use Yahoo! Pipes for that. (collecting the feeds and output one single feed).

  6. nate says:

    Tom, Yes, there are many different variations of this kind of thing since there are so many services out there. could (theoretically) be a replacement for (if their RSS aggregator would work with everything), Yahoo! Pipes could be an alternative, could be another. I was looking for the easiest possible UI to use as a prototype and was it. I’m not saying it’s perfect.

    In fact, I believe Jim (from the Net Squared event) discussed creating another alternative to the Aggregator and areas for more industrial applications. There’s definitely room for improvement if you’re techie enough.

  7. Megan says:

    Nate, this is really exciting. Gets heads thinking creatively about different combinations of tools and how the harness the pros of each one together. Lots of potential here for nonprofits–I’m thinking particularly in the area of using mobile to reach communities.

  8. Tom says:

    The fact is that Yahoo! Pipes (if it’s up and working) gives you a lot more control over the content you’re publishing. Let’s say I do a search on an object. In all above cases you probably (as I’m not familiar with the services) get all results passed through. Yahoo! Pipes gives you the ability to tweak the output (apply formatting, remove duplicates, filter content, etc)

    However these services are really cool and we should see a lot of resources adapting to this trend in order to provide the community fresh information. The good thing also is most of this is free!

  9. nate says:

    Megan, Thanks! There is a ton of potential and this only scratches the surface using the tools available which are easy to put together. If you want to get more complicated and feature-full, you could definitely use things like Yahoo! Pipes and custom built solutions. But, even just this is a good set of tools to start with.

    Tom, I’m not disagreeing with you at all. In fact, I love Yahoo! Pipes. I think it’s a wonderful service. The issues is that for some users, it’s extremely complicated. The reason I used what I did for this prototype is the easy UI. It’s extremely simple whereas if I tried to help people understand how to use Pipes, it would have taken a much longer post and would probably put off many non-technical users.

    I do think Pipes is great, but it’s for the techie who knows what they’re doing. But, in the end, as I said before, this is a prototype, not a proposal for a full-fledged service with all the bells, whistles, and control that you could otherwise have using Pipes or custom built solutions.

  10. Tom says:

    Yeah I have to agree Nate that indeed Pipes has a steeper learning curve compared to the other readily available services. I had to investigate the possibilities of the Yahoo! Pipes for a new job at work. It is wonderful but you do need a certain (well, a lot) interest in technology and finding your way around with the internet and computers, technology in general is a must in order to fully understand and recognize the potential of a Pipes like application.

    I think you did a wonderful thing here – it’s easy to setup and can be used for a lot of things. You could even “generalize” the whole thing and just put up a new “account” for every event (flood, tornados, etc) to let people know what’s going on, what they should do, etc. Integrate DIY links to improve your house so it can take all the violence of a storm, etc.

  11. nate says:

    Thanks Tom. You’re getting to the exact thing I tried to do from Day 1 after the fires. “Generalizing” this and getting it into the hands of people who are right in the middle of the events is exactly it. Distributed citizen journalism with a very distinct point…. information distribution.

    It could change the world as we know it.

  12. Dave Webb says:

    This is great! You’ve done an excellent job of channeling these social media streams into one swift moving river! Question. Do you see any reason that Tumblr couldn’t be used instead of Soup? Any particular reason for why you went with soup?

  13. nate says:

    Yea, I would have used Tumblr, but at the time I put together my prototype Tumblr wasn’t parsing Flickr photos. I hope they’ve solved that issue, but that’s why I used I would assume it could be done using Tumblr too, if they fixed that bug.

  14. Nate, great meeting you at the event, and thanks for posting this to your blog. The presentation was great, and looking forward to the NetSquared group’s blog posts on Twitter.

  15. nate says:

    Jeremy, nice to meet you as well. I appreciate your comments. Thanks for being part of such a great group of people. It made talking easier and way more fun.

  16. Tara Hunt says:

    Hey Nate!

    Awesome write-up and ideas. I’ve been using your example of how to use Twitter as a great way to build Social Capital in my Gov 2.0 presentations (you are one of the Citizen Superheroes). Glad to hear you could broker that knowledge to others. ;)

  17. nate says:


    Thank you for your comment and kudos. I appreciate them more than you know as I look up to you and your work. You are one of my heros, so the circle goes ’round. Feel free to use anything I post here on my blog or otherwise in any presentations you want. This blog (as you might have seen at the bottom) is licensed under a CC Attrib-Share Alike 3.0, so go crazy with whatever you find useful.


  18. Wish I could’ve attended; thank you for this newsy update in lieu of same; much appreciated. (between Beth Kanter’s Cambodian fundraising & Gavin Heaton’s recent accolades in “Twitter Over Delivers” seems the citizen journalism truly does only ‘scrape the surface!’ (tho I’m still inspired by the disaster reporting and on the spot news capabilities, like the train track teen heroes in fellow AOC author David Armano’s Twitter-reporting awhile back too. Now I just wish we could dispatch this model pronto to our friends in Kenya and Pakistan right now…seems there are a gazillion useful media levers to pay this forward in a productive manner. SO much to learn for nonprofit newbies like me, thanks for helping us all.

  19. nate says:

    Amy, hello! I believe we met at Community Next about a year ago (or more). Great to hear from you.

    Yes, I agree, my original goal right after the San Diego fires was to get this kind of thing into the hands of the Myanmar monks and those in the middle of the Pakistan crisis. Of course, I don’t really have the contacts to spread the ideas over there, but you got it. That is exactly the idea.

  20. Ian Kennedy says:

    Nate, it was great to hear your story. Besides Yahoo Pipes (knocking my head for not mentioning it to you when I was in the audience) Dave Winer’s also developed an interesting service called twittergram which allows you to use your phone to call in reports from the field which get added to a twitter feed.

    Could be useful if you need to get the news out but do not have access to a web browser.

  21. Justin says:


    Keep up the great work! That’s awesome.

    It’s amazing that Twitter, a word that is probably so unfamiliar to many of us, could become a household name that we will hardly be able to believe came into existence during our lifetime.

  22. Britt Bravo says:

    Hi Nate!

    I’ve included your post in this month’s Net2ThinkTank roundup!

  23. nate says:

    Thanks Britt. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me.

    And everyone else, I appreciate your comments and kudos. You guys rock.

  24. Greg Tallent says:

    Thanks, Nate.

    Just wanted to let you know we’ve recently launched four social websites (below) that do what you’ve described above. They can be used quickly and easily to inform and educate people who are active in the issues of climate change, working for peace, easing poverty and wildlife conservation.

    The basic idea is that people who have resources are matched with those who do not. Activists can use these sites to contribute: experience, contacts, resources, etc. Recipients can use this site to tell people what they need.


    Senior Lecturer
    London South Bank University
    +44 20 7815 7744

  25. nate says:

    Just realized, we could add to the mix to be aggregated in case anyone is doing live reporting. That would be awesome! It could post every few minutes something like “#ustream: live reporting at” or something like that. That would rule!

  26. Tommaso says:

    Really exciting Nate.

    I wrote about microblogging potential to online communities with a different approach: .

    It’s italian but you can find english slides too:


  27. Very cool stuff, Nate. I’m just getting started with some NPs, trying to get them to use technology a little more to improve their service and their funding.

  28. nate says:

    Well Brian, feel free to keep an eye on what I’m doing here. I think I’ll be talking, using, and showing how to use these kinds of technology much more in the future. THanks for the props.

    Tommaso, thanks for the links. I’ve noticed my site linked to from those a few times. I appreciate it.

  29. Andy says:

    Good article…

    It would be good to see some examples of Twitter accounts used effectively for third sector / activism promotion…

  30. nate says:

    Andy, there are quite a few. I built @missingchildren, @whatsshakin, and @makechange. There’s also plenty of others. Here’s one list. And RWW posted an article about other ways (outside of twitter) to promote activism. Nedra also has a great categorized list of a few more twitter accounts here.

  31. Andy says:

    A quick response! Thanks

  32. Andy says:

    Another question – I’ve read the Overbrook Foundation report on Web 2.0 technologies. Are you aware of any other similar study over the past year?

  33. nate says:

    Personally, I haven’t read that report, but I’d be interested in it. Would you mind sharing the link for myself and others?

    If I see any other reports like it, I’ll definitely let you know. In the meantime, perhaps someone else who’s already commented or will comment in the future knows of some. I’ll Twitter the question and see if people will come respond here.

  34. Freestyler says:

    Communities need this now more than ever! Put social media to work!

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