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Social, mapping and mobile data tell the story of Hurricane Irene

Citizens will act as important sensors as a huge storm washes up the East Coast of the United States.

As Hurricane Irene bears down the East Coast, millions of people are bracing for the impact of what could be a multi-billion dollar disaster.

We’ve been through hurricanes before. What’s different about this one is the unprecedented levels of connectivity that now exist up and down the East Coast. According to the most recent numbers from the Pew Internet and Life Project, for the first time, more than 50% of American adults use social networks. 35% of American adults have smartphones. 78% of American adults are connected to the Internet. When combined, those factors mean that we now see earthquake tweets spread faster than the seismic waves themselves. The growth of an Internet of things is an important evolution. What we’re seeing this weekend is the importance of an Internet of people.

As citizens look for hurricane information online, government websites are under high demand. In this information ecosystem, media, government and citizens alike will play a critical role in sharing information about what’s happening and providing help to one another. The federal government is providing information on Hurricane Irene at Hurricanes.gov and sharing news and advisories in real-time on the radio, television, mobile devices and online using social media channels like @FEMA. As the storm comes in, FEMA recommends m.fema.gov to mobile users and ready.gov for desktops.

Over the next 72 hours a networked public can share its effects in real-time, providing city, state and federal officials unprecedented insight into what’s happening. Citizens will be acting as sensors in the midst of the storm, creating an ad hoc system of networked accountability through data. There are already efforts underway to organize and collect the crisis data that citizens are generating, along with putting the open data that city and state government have released.

Following are just a few examples of how data is playing a role in hurricane response and reporting.

Open data in the Big Apple

The city of New York is squarely in the path of Hurricane Irene and has initiated mandatory evacuations from low-lying areas. The NYC Mayor’s Office has been providing frequent updates to New Yorkers as the hurricane approaches, including links to an evacuation map, linked below:

NYC Hurricane Evacuation Map

The city provides public hurricane evacuation data on the NYC DataMine. Geographic data regarding NYC Hurricane Evacuation Zones and Hurricane Evacuation Centers is publicly available on the NYC DataMine. To find and use this open data, search for “Data by Agency” and select “Office of Emergency Management (OEM). Developers can also download Google Earth KMZ files for the Hurricane Evacuation Zones. If you have any trouble accessing these files, civic technologist Philip Ashlock is mirroring NYC Irene data and links on Amazon Web Services (AWS).

“This data is already being used to power a range of hurricane evacuation zone maps completely independent of the City of New York, including at WNYC.org and the New York Times,” said Rachel Sterne, chief digital officer of New York City. “As always, we support and encourage developers to develop civic applications using public data.”

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Partnering with citizens in Maryland

“We’re partnering with SeeClickFix to collect reports from citizens about the effects from Irene to help first responders,” said Bryan Sivak, Maryland’s chief innovation officer, in a phone interview. The state has invited its citizens to share and view hurricane data throughout the state.

“This is interesting from a state perspective because there are very few things that we are responsible for or have the ability to fix. Any tree branches or wires that go down will be fixed by a local town or a utility. The whole purpose is to give our first responders another channel. We’re operating under the perspective that more information is better information. By having more eyes and ears out there reporting data, we can make better informed decisions from an emergency management perspective. We just want to stress that this is a channel for communication, as opposed to a way to get something fixed. If this channel is useful in terms of managing the situation, we’ll work with local governments in the future to see if it can help them. ”

SeeClickFix has been working on enabling government to use citizens as public sensors since its founding. We’ll see if they can help Maryland with Hurricane Irene this weekend.

[Disclosure: O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is an investor in SeeClickFix.]

The best hurricane tracker ever?

In the face of the storm, the New York Times has given New Yorkers one of the best examples of data journalism I’ve seen to date, a hurricane tracker that puts open data from the National Weather Service to beautiful use.

If you want a virtuoso human curation of the storm, New York Times reporter Brian Stelter is down in the Carolinas and reporting live via Twitter.

Crisismapping the hurricane

A Hurricane Irene crisis map is already online, where volunteers have stood up an instance of Ushahidi.

Mashing up social and geospatial data

ESRI has also posted a mashup that combines video and tweets onto an interactive map, embedded below:

The Florida Division of Emergency Management is maintaining FloridaDisaster.org, with support from DHS Science and Technology, mashing up curated Twitter accounts. You can download live shape files of tweeters and KML files to use if you wish.

Google adds data layers

There are also a wealth of GIS and weather data feeds powering Google.org’s Hurricane Season mashup.

If you have more data stories or sources from Hurricane Irene, please let me know at alex@oreilly.com or on Twitter at @digiphile. If you’re safe, dry and connected, you can also help Crisis Commons by contributing to the Hurricane Irene wiki.

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