Hurricane Sandy's Impact Measured By Flickr Photo Posts
November 6, 2013

Hurricane Sandy’s Impact Measured By Flickr Photo Posts

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Hurricane Sandy hit 24 states in Late October last year, decimating parts of New Jersey and its famous boardwalk, becoming the second-costliest hurricane in US history. Scientists have now measured the superstorm's impact by using pictures posted on photo-sharing site Flickr.

Thirty-two million photos of the weather phenomenon were posted on Flickr between October 20 and November 20 2012. Researchers, publishing a paper in the journal Scientific Reports, say they found a strong link to atmospheric pressure dropping in New Jersey by using the millions of images shared.

Tobias Preis, Associate Professor of Behavioural Science and Finance at the University of Warwick, said that the team’s results show that the greatest number of photos posted on Flickr using titles such as “Hurricane Sandy” or “sandy” during the time frame of the study were taken in the first moments the storm nailed the East Coast. The team’s study shows that using online indicators like Flickr could help governments measure the impact of future disasters.

"Our steadily increasing use of digital technology is opening up new and fruitful ways to document and follow human actions," said  Preis in a statement. "Building on our recent work, we asked whether data from photos uploaded to Flickr could have been used to measure the impact of Hurricane Sandy.”

"Examination of the number of Hurricane Sandy related photos taken before and after landfall reveals a striking correlation with environmental measurements of the development of the hurricane." Dr Suzy Moat, Assistant Professor of Behavioural Science at the University of Warwick, said in a press release. "As the severity of a hurricane in a given area increases, atmospheric pressure drops. We found that as atmospheric pressure in New Jersey fell the number of photos taken rose and as atmospheric pressure climbed again the number of photos taken fell.”

She said plotting the data helped revealed that the number of photos taken increased continuously while the hurricane moved towards the coast of the US.

“This study would suggest that in cases where no external sensors are available, it may be possible to use the number of Flickr photos relating to a topic to gauge the current level of this category of problems,” Moat said. "Flickr can be considered as a system of large scale real-time sensors, documenting collective human attention. Increases in Flickr photo counts with particular labels may reveal notable increases in attention to a particular issue, which in some cases may merit further investigation for policy makers.”

The team said policy makers and others in charge of emergency crisis management could use online indicators from sites like Flickr as leverage. However, they suggested that more research into other catastrophic events is needed before people in these positions decide to use these online resources.