Twitter Case Study: Finding GPS in a Hospital Haystack

I was in a meeting today with Kim from our Mayo Clinic Quality office discussing how social media and tools like the Flip video camera could be used in her work, and she mentioned that she had heard about a hospital in Texas that was giving GPS units to patients when they checked in, so they could more easily navigate to their appointments.

She said she had been wanting to track down the name of that hospital so she could get in touch and learn from the experience to see whether it’s something we might want to try, but that she didn’t really know where to start looking. So she had procrastinated for a few months at least because, as David Allen says in Getting Things Done, if you don’t know what the next action is, you can never move projects forward to completion.

I asked Kim if she would like to try a little Twitter experiment, right then and there, with me putting out the call for the information on Twitter. She was game, so here was my tweet at 2:27 p.m. today:


Within seven minutes my message had been re-tweeted five times, including these:


…and I also had several other responses telling me about RFID options and a pilot program that puts GPS devices in the shoes of Alzheimer’s patients to help track them if they go wandering.

By 2:39, 12 minutes after my original tweet, I had what I think is likely the definitive answer:


But besides the answer I was seeking, having asked the question on Twitter led to some new alternatives that I think Kim hadn’t been considering.

Lessons and Observations:

  1. Using relevant hashtags is a great way to have your tweet go to people beyond those who follow you directly. In this case I used #hcsm and #hcmktg. I’ve participated more in the former than the latter, but knowing about them enabled me to ask a relevant question in a virtual space where like-minded people gather.
  2. Investing time in Twitter builds capacity for future efficiency. The fact that I was familiar with Twitter, had some followers and knew some appropriate hashtags meant that I could find out in 12 minutes what had stymied Kim for several months. It’s possible that a new Twitter user with a question like that would get an answer, but likely only if a vendor had a Twitter search term set for “GPS.” Twitter isn’t a quick fix; it’s built on relationships. That takes some time, but once you’ve put in some effort you will see that the community will come to your aid.
  3. With Twitter, I didn’t have to know where to start looking, or who to ask. I asked my tweeps, and some of them passed it along to their tweeps. With email I would have had to decide where to send the message. With Twitter the message just seems to find the right people, provided you have started by putting in a little time to start a network.

Thanks to @stephaniethum, @nanoni127, @shamsha, @BethHarte, @JohnSalmonHUP, @josullivan, @lwelchman, @Cascadia, @lisacrymes, @DaphneLeigh, @DynamicRFID, @NickDawson, @tstitt, @mkhendricks, @MikaLofton, @mkmackey, @ljstarnes, and @gelogenic for participating today!

That’s the power of Twitter: 18 people coming together with no notice to discuss a topic and get an answer to a perplexing question (and to suggest other interesting alternatives) in less than an hour.

RAQ: What is the # in Twitter?

Ryan Link, a SMUGgle from Virginia, asks…

What does it mean/do when a word on Twitter is preceded by a #?

Answer: The # is called a hashtag, and is described in detail on the Twitter fan wiki.

Hashtags are a community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata to your tweets. They’re like tags on Flickr, only added inline to your post. You create a hashtag simply by prefixing a word with a hash symbol: #hashtag.

Hashtags were developed as a means to create “groupings” on Twitter, without having to change the basic service. The hash symbol is a convention borrowed primarily from IRC channels, and later from Jaiku’s channels. provides real-time tracking of Twitter hashtags. Opt-in by following @hashtags (on Twitter) to have your hashtags tracked. Similarly, Twemes offers real-time tracking without the necessity of following a specific Twitter account. Also, with their purchase of Summize, Twitter itself now offers some support of hashtags at their search engine:

See the Twitter fan wiki for more details on how to use hashtags, as well as some examples.

Hashtags are especially useful for conferences, meetings or events, to enable you (and others) to follow specific topics. During the recent election in the U.S., a special site was established that filtered all Tweets with the tags #obama, #mccain, #palin or #biden. This enabled a conversation among people who weren’t following each other. The same thing happened with the #mumbai terrorist attacks.

On a less global scale, if you have a conference or seminar and want to engage the participants (instead of having them be “the audience”) you could create a hashtag and encourage everyone to use it. It’s a great way to gather feedback from everyone in the room. Instead of standalone audience response devices, you could just ask people to tweet from their cell phones, wifi-enabled laptops, Blackberrys or iPhones.

And instead of just gathering feedback, you’re actually enabling your participants to interact with and build upon each other’s ideas. It could have an undesirable snowball effect if a tough crowd gangs up on a speaker (see this example involving Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg being interviewed at a conference), but the the positive potential also is great.

So you can be proactive and enable this kind of discussion at your meetings, and hopefully steer it in a positive direction, or you can be oblivious. I recommend the non-oblivious strategy.

Thanks for your question, Ryan.

To submit an RAQ (that’s a Recently Asked Question), just comment on any post or send me an email (see the Contact the Chancellor box at right.)

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine