Tweeting Disaster

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    Members of a search and rescue team work after the earthquake in Antakya, Turkey, on February 12, 2023. (AP/Bernat Armangue)
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    Software developers used Twitter API to comb the platform for calls for help from earthquake victims. (AP/Gregory Bull)
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    This Twitter ’bot tracks earthquakes all over the world. (Twitter/Bill Snitzer)
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    Elon Musk bought Twitter in 2022. He hopes to reverse the company’s financial decline. (AP/Susan Walsh)
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    Rescuers work to pull a young man from a collapsed building in Antakya, Turkey. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)
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Some changes at Twitter might affect more than just . . . Twitter. Disaster relief organizations across the world could lose access to a life-saving tool.

In February, an earthquake hit Turkey and Syria. Tragically, tens of thousands died. Many people were trapped or injured. In the search for survivors, rescuers received help from a surprising source: Twitter.

Survivors tweeted cries for help. But with so many people tweeting about the disaster, how could rescuers hear those cries?

Enter Twitter API.

API stands for “application programming interface.” An API simply allows apps to connect with each other. When a platform like Twitter provides API access, developers can connect their own codes and programs to the app.

In Turkey and Syria, developers built code to search for tweets from earthquake survivors. These programs could scour far more information than human volunteers. They could even connect earthquake victims with rescue organizations.

For years, Twitter has offered a free, open API. But soon, developers will need to pay at least $100 each month for access. This is one of many changes brought by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who purchased Twitter in 2022. By charging for API access, Musk hopes to help reverse the company’s financial decline.

Some developers use Twitter API for innocent fun, building ’bots to post jokes or literary quotes. Academics wield the tool for research, studying the way misinformation spreads online.

In Turkey and Syria, developers used Twitter API for a much more important purpose: to save lives. The tool helps other nations too. In Japan, a software developer named Takeshi Kawamoto created an earthquake alert ’bot. Its account has three million followers.

Most of the life-saving efforts like these come from non-profit organizations and individual volunteers. These do-gooders can’t afford the new monthly price tag.

“For Turkish coders working with Twitter API for disaster monitoring purposes, this is particularly worrying,” says Akin Unver, a professor of international relations. “And I’d imagine it is similarly worrying for others around the world that are using Twitter data to monitor emergencies and politically contested events.”

Developers say Twitter could easily make an exception for non-profits and academic researchers. But outsiders have had trouble contacting the company since Musk took over.

Should Twitter charge developers for API access? It belongs to Twitter. If Twitter spends money to maintain it, why shouldn’t the company profit from it?

But in Turkey and Syria, free Twitter API access saved lives in the most urgent of situations. By charging developers, Twitter might make a buck—but at what cost?

Why? Even when we act within our rights, we should take care with our actions and their consequences, and evaluate whether they serve self or others.