Flooding in Sri Lanka. Photo by REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

From Sri Lanka to Spain, Breaking News users share tips from 72 countries

The anonymous tips help others nearby and accelerate the discovery of stories around the world

As the rain fell and the waters rose, someone in Sri Lanka reached for their phone, opened the Breaking News app and tapped “flooding.”

Our editors saw the tip moments later, pinpointed just outside the city of Colombo. A search found a single story — posted two hours earlier on Accuweather.com — about flooding reported across Sri Lanka. Social media reports were sparse, but Twitter user @iRuthwanthi posted a photo ten minutes later of people wading through water in a Colombo neighborhood.

That’s the tip at the bottom, which kicked off our coverage above it.

Twenty minutes after the tip, the first update appeared on Breaking News and on screens in newsrooms around the world. In the days that followed, dozens of people lost their lives and more than 500,000 people would flee some of the worst flooding the region has seen in recent history.

The fact that a single user can amplify an important story in just a few taps is a testament to the extraordinary times we live in.

It’s been only 11 days since we launched the new feature in the Breaking News app, and we’ve seen anonymous tips from 72 countries, including places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Ukraine, Somalia, Sierra Leon and China. Tips have been shared from every US state except for South Dakota.

Where Breaking News users have shared thousands of tips over the last 11 days

Similar to the popular traffic app Waze, tips are only visible to people physically located nearby, but our editors also keep a watchful eye on the full stream of tips as they pour into our publishing platform.

Our editors are armed with just about every social media discovery tool available — and they’re embedded inside NBC News — but we’ve discovered dozens of stories from tips so far.

For example, a 3.5 magnitude earthquake rattled Rancho Cucamonga, California last night. This is a small quake, but we received several tips within a minute of the quake itself — and 5 minutes before the first USGS report:

Those three tips preceded the automated USGS report above it.

We’ve also discovered quakes from tips in Japan, Ecuador and Alaska.

Several hours earlier and 50 miles away from Rancho Cucamonga, several users tipped us to a brush fire in the Lake View Terrace area of Los Angeles. The tips preceded the first local news report — and eyewitness reports on social media — by several minutes. Soon, the fire grew to 135 acres and knocked out power in the neighborhood.

In NYC last week, police shot a man in the middle of busy Midtown Manhattan after he lunged at them with a knife, according to the NYPD. Our first tip, just a half-block away, appeared 4 minutes after the first social media report — and nearly 15 minutes before signal detection services surfaced it.

There are dozens more examples in our first 11 days, from standoffs and severe weather to accidents and protests, all around the globe.

Truth be told, there are way too many tips for us to chase. That’s why we’ve made tipping public for people who are located nearby; when you tip, you’re helping people around you. Just tap the tip button…

… and you’ll see it appear in the “nearby” tab in the Breaking News app along with the latest Tweets and stories that are breaking near you. (We’re fixing a bug that prevents some tips from displaying in densely-populated areas.)

We’re most surprised by the diversity of tips around the world. Yesterday, for example, a user in Terragona, Spain tapped “hazard.”

The smoke in Terragona, Spain, from El Periódico.

A search of local media sources discovered plumes of dark smoke spewing from a chemical plant into the air. We linked a story from El Periódico, a local news source covering the story. The chemical company was experiencing a “technical problem,” and residents were understandably alarmed about air quality. Fortunately, the smoke was deemed safe by local authorities.

When we publish stories on Breaking News, they’re seen by many of the largest newsrooms in the world. Breaking News is monitored around the clock, so those simple tips can translate into global attention. Just a few taps, heard around the world.

We’re excited about the potential, and we’re already at work on several new tipping features and bug fixes that will launch in the days ahead. If you have any ideas or feedback, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

(Post by Cory Bergman, co-founder of Breaking News)