A couple of months ago, I shared my experience with using Twitter while on vacation in Asheville, North Carolina, during Winter Storm Jonas. Turns out I’m not the only one who realized Twitter could be an invaluable tool during weather events – in April, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Texas Water Science Center launched the first Twitter accounts to disseminate real-time flood and rain data.

Why use Twitter for real-time flood data?

Flash back for a moment to Memorial Day, 2015: Texas is hit by severe rains and flooding. Power outages are widespread, roads are closed, properties are damaged, and people are caught in flash floods. The entire state is affected, and two disasters are declared. Without power, many people turn to the only communication tool they can: their cell phones.

That weekend, the USGS Texas Water Science Center realized they could use Twitter to both gather information and communicate with response partners. They began pulling water-related tweets, including data on rainfall and river thresholds. As the breadth of information became known, they began to develop two autonomous Twitter accounts designed to share real-time USGS sensor data. The accounts went live just a few months ago.

But where does the data come from?

The two accounts pull data from USGS sensors and create tweets with current information on flood risks and rainfall. Each tweet contains hashtags for the USGS site’s location, as well as links to the site’s data page on the USGS’s National Water Information System.

Granted, at first glance these tweets might look like jibberish unless you’re someone who knows how to interpret the data. But it’s easy to break it down to what’s relevant – each tweet contains the affected city. The tweets also tell you what body of water you’re looking at, once you decipher the abbreviations. Rv for river, Lk for lake, Nr for near. The water height might not mean much to someone who doesn’t regularly measure such things, but anyone can easily track whether the water level is rising or falling. It’s quite genius really – a system that’s robust enough for water resource managers and simple enough for the general public.

That’s great for Texas, but what does it mean for the rest of the country?

The creation of these autonomous Twitter accounts is a big step forward in providing real-time information when it’s needed most. While the accounts are specific to Texas, if the model works, it could easily be expanded across the country, and for different hazards. This is the kind of coordinated information dissemination approach the ODF team is striving for.

Beyond that, though, this type of real-time information can be used in non-disaster situations as well. Imagine you’re planning a family vacation to Texas, and maybe you’d like to do some boating. Or perhaps your neighborhood often floods after heavy rains – now you have a way to monitor the situation even away from home. The implications of this technology are vast, and there’s no limit to the uses this could be put to.

What other types of information do you consider a priority for this kind of real-time data sharing?

Read the full story, and a brief interview with the USGS Texas Water Science Center, here.