Geologists in the US and Australia are using Twitter as an earthquake and natural disaster detector, following tweets to pinpoint the areas affected first by these events.

This week, Geosciences Australia met at conference to discuss how to use technology to source data on earthquakes and tsunamis.

As reported by CIO.com, the agency’s chief Andrew Barnicoat had a lot of praise for Twitter as a potential tool for earthquake detection:

“It is effectively a crowd-to-agency system … and the tweeted reports of having felt an earthquake [and] a social epicentre is defined by this data. This sort if response can be faster than our traditional seismometer networks in telling us that an earthquake is coming. The Gen Ys of this world get on social media much faster than those earthquake waves can travel around the world … electrons travel faster than sound waves.”

He went on to say that it would likely take about 12 months before the agency began experimenting with Twitter in a serious way.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) already uses Twitter in an experimental way, trying to understand whether social media can trump scientific measurement tools in alerting the public to a natural disaster. They are funding a student who is filtering tweets by time, place and keyword to gather data on geo-located ground shakings.

They claim that Twitter can alert government agencies and the general public about natural disasters within seconds of their occurrence, while traditional scientific measurements like seismology tools can take anywhere between 2 and 20 minutes to report the data.

There are already plenty of stories of how Twitter has been used in emergency situations, like the man who was rescued in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami thanks to a tweet, and the essential communication function that Twitter performed during the Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand in April.