Queen's University experiments with Twitter for alerts

Neil Sutton
Friday February 05, 2010
Written by
In a lot of ways, 2009 was the Year of the Tweet, with countless celebrities, politicians and pundits joining Twitter to get their message out. 2010 may be the year that more security professionals get in on the game and make the micro-blogging service a useful part of their daily operations.
Steve Gill, technical coordinator for Queen’s University campus security, is already ahead of the game, having signed his department up for an account (@campussecurity) back in 2008.  In Twitter terms, that’s practically prehistoric.

Canadian Security magazine (@securityed) contacted Gill recently to find out what piqued his interest in social networking tools and the types of outreach he’s been able to accomplish.

Canadian Security: Whose idea was it to start a Twitter account for campus security?
Steve Gill: I was aware of Twitter not long after its inception and eventually considered it as a potential communication vehicle for our department. I contacted Twitter in February of 2008 to clarify a discrepancy in their online instructions for using Twitter on cellphones in Canada, and then brought it to the attention of our department administration. Our account was created and first "tweeted" on in July of 2008.

CS: What initial goals did you have in mind?
SG: Our initial goal was engagement and to provide an additional communications option for members of the Queen's University community to receive information from our department.  

CS: Who is responsible for providing updates? Is it a team effort?
SG: Currently our Twitter posts consist of what we have also published to our website. The source of that information is typically a collaborative effort, i.e. the staff who respond to the incidents and who document the details. General incident reports are published online by the technical coordinator, whereas Campus Wide Alerts are constructed and vetted by the department's administration and occasionally other administrators on campus as well.

CS: What other social networking tools do you use for campus security?
SG: Twitter is the only social media tool per se that we are actively engaged with right now.  We have a number of communication outlets integrated into our Emergency Notification System, and Twitter is part of that multifaceted approach. At Queen’s our approach to emergency communication is both layered and redundant as we are not relying on a single means of communication.

Having too many social media accounts to update would require additional time management in emergency situations, and people seeking information online will certainly gravitate to the platform we are actively engaging with.

However, due to the popularity of Facebook, and the recent ability to post Twitter status updates to a Facebook account automatically, we are considering using it as well. Plus, Queen’s University already has a dedicated group page on Facebook where we can post important information or alerts as needed.

CS: You currently have 371 followers. Is this about what you expected?
SG: We actually tested the system for quite some time before promoting or even linking to it. I believe it was just last March that we added a link on our website.

And of course the number of followers does not reflect people who subscribe to our account’s RSS feed or have bookmarked our profile page for future visits.

The exposure of our posts is also not just limited to our own followers, since many of them will retweet to their accounts or otherwise disseminate the information online (e.g. on Facebook or to their personal blogs).

CS: Has Twitter helped you with any security leads or led to any solid results?
SG: In the past we have received calls where the person will state having seen a post “online” or “on your website” (i.e. the description of a suspicious person seen on campus), and file a report based on that post.  But we haven't been specifically asking where they saw the original information online. And, since many of our posts are retweeted or posted on Facebook, it would be difficult to trace such reports back to their original source.

CS: Have you found Twitter useful for networking or sharing ideas with other Twitter users?
SG: Our account was created to only broadcast information and alerts; we do not actively network there. However we have had a few Twitter messages tagged for us which were read and, when applicable, responded to either by Direct Message or through that person's own email account.

Although we understand and appreciate the social networking aspects of Twitter, we decided to be consistent and refrain from retweeting or otherwise engaging in public conversation.

Having said that, we do stay aware of how Twitter, and social media in general, is used here at the university as well as in a variety of incidents around the world.

CS: Has there been any resistance to using a social networking tool like Twitter?
SG: Since adding new communication platforms also entails additional time and effort, we closely consider any new platforms  that might be suitable for the needs of our community,

For Twitter, I kept abreast of its development and expansion over time before being able to comfortably discount it being an Internet “flash in the pan”, especially after seeing its use in emergency situations around the world (e.g. the Mumbai attack, a variety of school emergencies, and more recently Haiti, etc).
After Twitter was finally suggested to the administration, there was no resistance in implementing it.

Still bigger than Twitter: the other emergency notification channels at Queen’s University

* Emergency Notification System (Campus Wide Public Address System with Emergency Tones and Prerecorded Messages)
* Email (emails can be distributed by Campus Security to 22,000 Queen’s accounts)
* Queen’s Home Page (Campus Security can post pre-crafted messages, updates)
* University Phone Status Line (x3333) (Campus Security can post pre-crafted messages, updates)
* Queen's Digital Information Network via the 22 Campus Plasma Monitors (Quick outreach or real-time messaging, Campus Security can post updates)
* News/Media Feeds ”“ Fax local radio/TV (Campus Security can email pre-crafted messages, updates)

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