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[MANILA] The Philippine weather bureau hopes to better warn people of approaching typhoons by using the social networking tool Twitter to send out up-to-the-minute information.

The state-run Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) started using Twitter in mid-October during the latest typhoon to hit the country, Megi (locally named Juan).

Twitter allows users to send out 140-character 'tweets' to anyone who follows them online or via mobile phones. PAGASA's page is public for anyone to see. Its Twitter name is @dost_pagasa and it now has almost 34,000 followers.

The service is only active before and during a storm, with six junior weather specialists sending out tweets and answering queries 24 hours a day.

Another storm had been predicted to hit the country before the end of the year but has not yet occurred.

Samantha Monfero, a weather specialist at PAGASA, said the idea for using Twitter came about when Graciano Yumul Jr, science and technology undersecretary of the government's Department for Science and Technology, instructed the agency to begin hourly weather reports of approaching storms.

Yumul was named interim chief of PAGASA in July, replacing Prisco Nilo following numerous errors in forecasting typhoon paths — particularly typhoon Conson in July.

Despite facing an average of 19 typhoons each year, the country is often caught unaware of severe storms.

"[Twitter] is a highly effective way of spreading information fast," Yumul told SciDev.Net. But he added that it was difficult to tell whether communicating via Twitter had saved lives or reduced damage from typhoon Megi.

Sharon Juliet Arruejo, another PAGASA weather specialist, said that the advantage of Twitter is that information can be disseminated in real time and is self-perpetuating, as followers can pass the message on to their own followers.

Free Twitter messages can also reach more people than PAGASA text messages, which are sent only to local officials because of the cost involved.

Yumul said that tweeting is a common social tool so he would not be surprised if other countries in the region followed suit.

But it is only useful if people have Internet access, said Faustino Almendral, past president of a local Rotary club, who is engaged in humanitarian and civic projects.

Only 15 per cent of people in the Philippines use Twitter, according to US-based digital marketing intelligence group comScore.

But Yumul said that Twitter is only one of the tools that the agency uses to warn of typhoons. "We are just using an existing protocol to fit into disaster management," he concluded.

Link to PAGASA's Twitter updates