CU Students Author New Twitter Language For Disaster Relief

Language Connects Needy With Relief Efforts

A group of CU Boulder science and engineering students is pioneering a new language on Twitter that is helping connect victims of the Haiti earthquake with relief organizations.

"There's a lot of noise on Twitter nowadays," said Sophia B. Liu, a technology and media student who is helping pilot the new Twitter dialect.

In the week since the earthquake, Twitter and other social networking Web sites have exploded with news and information about the crisis, along with appeals for help.

The new dialect, or syntax that PhD. students Kate Starbird and scientist Jeannie Stamberg have developed is called "Tweak the Tweet." Using a series of hash marks and abbreviated vocabulary, the language isolates tweets about disasters in one location where relief organizations and potential donors can access them. Liu and graduate student Sarah Vieweg are helping Starbird track and translate the dialect on Twitter.

"We're trying to offer a way that if people want to provide information, they can use this channel and it can get to the rest of the world pretty much instantaneously if they use this grammar," said Starbird.

The hash marks and abbreviated vocabulary can be easily read by a computer and funneled through the Twitterverse and directly to relief organizations.

A basic stream of consciousness tweet requesting bottled water to a certain location in Haiti might ordinarily read: "20 people need water at Rue Pierre House no. 14." Using the new grammar, Starbird and her colleagues would translate the message to read: "#haiti #num 20 #need water #loc Rue Pierre House no. 14."

"With these markers, these little hash tags, we can go in and say 'Their location is here, they need water,' and then route that to a relief organization," said Associate Professor of Computer Science Ken Anderson.

Since the earthquake hit, the language is picking up steam, surging from just a few hundred users to roughly 11,000. Some users have even started retweeting messages into other languages.

"It's really exciting," said Vieweg "This is really making an impact beyond our social network."

Vieweg is already reformatting tweets that are in English and French to the new syntax, but said more people are needed to translate English and especially Haitian Creole tweets that could help earthquake survivors. To learn more about helping Haiti through "Tweak the Tweet" visit Tweak the Tweet and follow the effort on Twitter at