As Flickr Goes, So Goes the Storm

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy, one of the most destructive hurricanes in U.S. history, swept across 24 states, with New Jersey at its epicenter.
As Flickr Goes, So Goes the Storm

When researchers analyzed the number of images from Sandy posted on Flicker, an image-sharing website, they discovered a link between Flickr activity and dropping atmospheric pressure.

“Quantifying the Digital Traces of Hurricane Sandy on Flicker” was authored by Tobias Preis, associate professor of behavioral science, and Suzy Moat, assistant professor of behavioral science, both of Warwick Business School in the United Kingdom; Steven Bishop and Philip Treleaven, in the mathematics and physics departments, respectively, at University College London in the U.K.; and H. Eugene Stanley in the physics department at Boston University in the U.S.

The team searched for Flickr photos tagged either “Hurricane Sandy,” “Hurricane,” or “Sandy,” posted in 2012 between October 20 and November 20. They counted approximately 32 million images—of those, most went live during the same hour that Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, when atmospheric pressure was dropping. Activity decreased as the pressure began to climb.

Such online indicators could help policymakers identify the impact of weather disasters more quickly, the authors suggest. Sites like Flicker could act as “large scale real-time sensors, documenting collective human attention,” says Moat. She and her co-authors emphasize that, when seconds count and secondary information is scarce, emergency responders could use social media activity as one way to know where to focus their efforts.

The study was published November 2013 in Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports. It is available at www.nature.com/srep/2013/131105/srep03141/full/srep03141.html.