From left, Kate Starbird, Sarah Vieweg, and Sophia B. Liu — members of CU research group Empowering People with Information in Crisis — hold a screen showing their project on Twitter. The program is connecting those with relief needs in Haiti to responders on the ground.

University of Colorado graduate student Kate Starbird brought her award-winning digital idea to life this week in an effort to help Haiti recover from its devastating earthquake.

Starbird’s new networking idea — called Tweak the Tweet — is improving online communication by connecting those with needs to responders on the ground, and it’s happening on Twitter.

Less than 48 hours after the earthquake struck Haiti, Starbird and CU research group Empowering People with Information in Crisis, or EPIC, had implemented Tweak the Tweets and today volunteers across the nation are helping out.

“If you would have told me six days ago that we would have people, volunteers all over Twitter helping us with this, I wouldn’t believe it,” Starbird said. “Tweak the Tweet is crowd-sourcing and if people are catching on and participating, then our goals are being met, at least to some extent.”

Tweak the Tweet is a syntax that puts carefully formatted Twitter updates into a collective database, which helps match needs to rescue efforts. Starbird and EPIC are searching Twitter for Haiti-related tweets and updating or retweeting them on their profile, @epiccolorado, in formats that are recognized by computers, which can then match related comments.

“Yesterday we had someone send us a direct message requesting help,” Starbird said. “Within 10 minutes they sent us another message saying that need had been met. That’s really what this is about.”

Starbird’s idea began at a conference she attended in November and has been a topic of discussion for the Computer Science Department since before winter break. But after weeks of meetings and conversation, the crisis in Haiti presented an opportunity to test the syntax idea.

Starbird’s mentor, computer science professor Leysia Palen, said the crisis has provided an opportunity to start watching the reality of the idea.

“It was always going to take an event to see what was going to happen,” Palen said. “Of course, we are not happy that this event happened, but it could clarify a lot of research missions and goals for this project.”

The focus for Starbird and the EPIC team is not about the syntax, but improving communication during the crisis.

Starbird said they are nervous about the program, “nervous about not doing enough,” and happy about the results so far.

For more information about Tweak the Tweet, visit EPIC on Twitter at or go to their Web site at

blog comments powered by Disqus