A Dutch startup has launched a service that studies data from social networks to quickly identify online service outages -- sometimes, it says, before the service providers know about the outages themselves.
Downdetector.com, which rolled out in the U.S. last month, sees itself as "the weatherman for the digital world," by detecting outages and interruptions on cellphone networks, banking services, social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and business services such as Salesforce.com.
By analysing data from tweets and other sources, Downdetector says it can detect outages almost as soon as they happen. It plots the problems on graphs that consumers can view for free online, and for a fee provides email alerts about the outages aimed at journalists, industry analysts and the service providers themselves.
The site can be particularly useful for journalists. Often when outages occur, the reporter receives a tip, calls the service provider to confirm the problem, and by the time the company calls back the problem has been fixed and there is no story, said Downdetector cofounder Tom Sanders .
"There's a better way to do this," said Sanders, a former journalist himself.
Also, consumers get frustrated and upset when services aren't working, he said, adding that "we want to offer the information [that] providers are unable or unwilling to provide."
The Downdetector site provides status pages for various companies, complete with charts that plot the volume of problems the site has picked up. Visitors can post comments and see the latest tweets Downdetector's software has flagged related to the problems.
Downdetector launched last year in the Netherlands, where it tracks some 200 services ranging from online banking and landline providers to Internet services and social networks like YouTube, and public utilities and transportation providers.
The .com site started tracking service providers in the U.S. last month, with a focus on major telecommunications outlets and online financial services, as well as social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Spotify and the WhatsApp messenger service.
The company declined to disclose the other sources it tracks besides Twitter, for competitive reasons and to prevent people from attempting to game its services.
Downdetector receives and analyses reports 24/7, but not every report indicates there is an outage. "If the current number of reports is significantly higher than the regular number, our system automatically determines that there is an outage," Sanders said.
The system isn't perfect. "We can't guarantee that false positives aren't displayed," the company said. For the first 12 months, therefore, Downdetector manually verified every outage before posting it to its site, which gave its developers "a pretty good feeling" of where they needed to improve the software, Sanders said. The service currently has a number of checks built in, like looking at the frequency of certain reports, to help keep its detection accurate.
Still, "we try to err on the cautious side," Sanders said. "We'd rather miss an outage for a small part of the system than be the boy who cries wolf."
Downdetector, which is incorporated in the Netherlands, generates revenue through advertising and by selling some of its data services, such as the email alerts.
The company also operates sites in Germany (Allestorungen.de), the Flemish region of Belgium (Allestoringen.be) and the U.K. (Downdetector.co.uk), and is in the process of building a French website (Touteslespannes.fr), Sanders said.
Similar outage information is offered to the public through sites such as IsItDownRightNow.com and DownRightNow.com, but "we feel we offer more information, such as the nature of the outage," Sanders said, be it Internet-, TV- or phone-based.
Also, "none of those services detected today's outage at CenturyLink," he said, "so we must be doing something right."