#twitter and #ewr

Last Friday night around 6 p.m., an alert came over from Breaking News Network, which caught my attention:

*Smoke Condition*| Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), 10 Toler Pl| smoke condition in the control tower has all air traffic shutdown for the airports. Planes being held on the grounnd and circling in the air.

I was in New York City at the time, and we turned on the car radio to see if the local news had anything, but heard nothing. Half an hour later, BNN updated with the news that flights had resumed and no fire had been found in the control tower.

I didn’t think any more about the incident until yesterday, when I read a blog post by Tom Evslin, chief technology officer for the state of Vermont, who happened to be sitting on a plane waiting to take off when the smoke condition occurred. Evslin, being a captive to the situation, tried harder than I did to find out what was going on. Using twitter and the hashtag #ewr, he managed to follow the drama in real time — and quickly knew more than the flight crew.

With his permission, I’m reprinting his account:

#twitter has the #news about #ewr

The pilot didn’t know immediately why the control tower at #ewr (Newark Liberty International Airport) had gone radio silent and not acknowledged his request for pushback. But I knew as soon as I turned my Droid X back on, started the twitter app, and searched for #ewr (natch). The tweeting had already begun. In fact there were multiple explanations, which converged around a fire alarm leading the controllers to evacuate. Turned out this was the truth although apparently there was no fire.

In case you’re not a frequent flier EWR is the airport code for Newark. For readers who don’t tweet, “#ewr” is an example of a hashtag (because it starts with a “#” or hashmark). You can use twitter and most apps which support twitter to look for all public tweets which contain a particular hashtag; you don’t have to be following the person who tweeted the information you want. “How did you know what code to use?” the flight attendant asked me. I don’t know of any authoritative dictionary; you just make them up on the fly and you’re usually right.

For the next hour those of us on twitter had a more accurate status of planes holding in the air and on the ground than the cabin crew seemed to. The flight attendant declined to relay my updates to the cockpit, however.

By the time we had to turn phones off for takeoff 90 minutes later, there was still nothing I could find on the NYTimes or CNN websites about the EWR episode – which was, in the grand scheme of things, not terribly important except to those of us involved in it. This is just a tiny taste of how useful twitter must be, though, to those who are in societies where news is suppressed.

An interesting side effect is that those of us tweeting almost immediately started getting offers of places to stay in the #NYC area from our online followers. Since my tweets automatically become status on #facebook, facebooks friends were looking out for me as well.

Smart, and a new trick for my reporting arsenal. Read more from Evslin at his blog Fractals of Change.

Photo, via Flickr, by squigfried.

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