Hurricane Sandy and Crisismapping

As Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast this weekend, efforts were already underway to allow the mapping of geographically referenced data. A developing trend in disaster management is to allow members of the public to produce data related to their needs and location, to map disaster-affected areas, and to process the data that’s produced. This “crowdsourcing” relies on mapping platforms such as Ushahidi,’s CrisisMaps, and OpenStreetMap, but there are many such examples.

Several hours before Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29, many of these kinds of platforms were set up and ready to be used, each covering a different component of the overall response. Coordination came from Hurricane Hackers, a loose coalition that formed in the run-up to the storm. This group and many volunteers assembled a list of different crisis maps in use and different ideas and areas to which volunteers could contribute. Crisis maps were established for diverse aspects of disaster response, including shelters and evacuation zones and communications network outages, and efforts are underway to engage volunteers in the post-hurricane rebuilding.

Social media was a prominent dimension of data production. The number of Sandy-related tweets posted to Twitter was astounding, with 695,000 posted before 11:00AM on Monday, and reaching 3,200 per minute at one point. Instagram was also a documenting tool of choice by the public, with 10 photos per second being posted at the peak of the storm. Additionally, many citizens were using LiveStream to broadcast their observations in real time. With this amount of data being produced, visualization becomes a challenge; one solution for visualization and analysis is the Tweak the Tweet project.

Despite these numerous technologies, coordination efforts, and amounts of data, it is as yet unclear what kinds of material impacts these had for on-the-ground disaster response. While this is due to a lack of research into direct impacts, some in this sphere work directly on connecting crowdsourced crisis mapping with disaster and humanitarian responders. People such as Gisli Olafsson, working with NetHope, and Andrej Verity with the Digital Humanitarian Network work on this connection; oftentimes disaster and humanitarian response organizations will enlist the help of volunteer groups like the Standby Task Force.

Still, overall there is a need for more coordination across the many technologies and data production platforms. As one responder put it in a personal conversation with Commons Lab, “There is no [overall] directory or accountability for these maps.” This is currently an area of research in the Commons Lab, since the Lab is particularly suited to address this type of question through policy and through connecting the important parties.

About the author

Ryan Burns, PhC, is a doctoral candidate in geography at University of Washington-Seattle. He is currently serving as a research assistant with the Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is studying the social and political implications of geographic technologies, particularly the ways new mapping and social media technologies are being integrated into disaster management strategies.


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