Normally earthquakes are detected with sensative instruments, under the care of trained seismologists. Now with the Twitter API the ability to detect and report quake locations may fall into anyone's hands.
Using Twitter's advanced search, one can search for keywords, such as "earthquake," within a specific location. The same can be done programmatically through the API. And the United States Geological Survey has a project that does just that.
Paul Earle heads up the project and he explained why it's important, even to seismologists, in an interview with ecopolitology:
"For felt earthquakes in populated regions, Twitter reports often precede the USGS’s publicly-released, scientifically-verified earthquake alerts. For earthquakes in sparsely instrumented regions, these detections could provide an initial heads up that an earthquake may have occurred."
Recent earthquakes in California and Haiti were spotted and reported via the project's Twitter account (of course). It's not meant to replace a full scientific analysis, as ecopolitology notes:
Also, most 'quake-centric' tweets will generally lack a ton of hard data, instead falling into the 'qualitative data' camp. These are usually personal reactions, quick recollections and little bits of narrative that can help capture descriptive dimensions of earthquakes that hard scientific data might not adequately capture.
In terms of speed, nothing seems to do a better job than Twitter. And you'd naturally expect Google to get in on anything related to quickly spreading the world's information. The company told CNet it integrated Twitter into search results about last week's San Francisco quake in under two minutes.
Hat tip: @timoreilly