Twice in the last month I’ve spent days glued to my computer, refreshing a multitude of tabs and Twitter feeds. Neither have been happy events: first the riots in England, and then Hurricane Irene. They reminded me how fragile our information services are. And how useless most media coverage is.
Crisis news is overwhelming. People tweeting their #Irene updates produced a huge volume of information. Epic. More than you could possibly read. Blink, and the Twitter notification would jump up by the hundreds, “660 new tweets”.
All the tweeting produced a lot of data, but not so much information. Hurricane tweets fell into two rough groups: messages repeating news from a mainstream source like cable or the weather service; and highly-specific, independently observed local reporting. Like reading a police blotter, you get easily alarmed as these blips kept on coming, and coming, and coming.
The traditional outlets were mostly a let down. Cable news… was cable news. The Guardian and New York Times offered live blogs, but they mostly re-hashed what was being said elsewhere. The lowpoint for me was the Guardian’s live blogger appealing for someone to explain tides to him. Wait, I’m here to learn from you, not the other way around. Close that tab.
I am lucky enough to work with a weather nerd (and I mean that most sincerely), and he spent the hurricane days trawling the weather data, and providing useful, solid insights. From Evan, I learned the good news that Irene was weakening.
Not everyone can have an Evan, so what could be different?
What you crave during a crisis is information, not entertainment. We need more information. In the days leading up to Irene, WNYC’s map of evacuation zones popped up in emails, tweets and other media outlets. It used freely-available city data, excellently presented. The crowd-sourced map of disturbances in London was my go-to during the rioting. Nothing as useful emerged for the storm. Where are the waters rising? Where is power out? What is the trend? What’s going on out there?
View Initial London riots / UK riots in a larger map
Good information: a crowd-sourced map of disturbances in London.
Some clues came from citizens reporting problems, but in a dispersed, disconnected fashion. We need to connect all these different channels of citizen reporting, seamlessly. After a pre-storm wobble where nyc.gov went offline, the city set up a crowd map for reporting, as did an elected official. The 311 catch-all help service was open for business, and SeeClickFix offered free tools to help cities collect damage reports. That’s a lot of individual websites to keep an eye on. It shouldn’t matter which site you visit or where you make a report, these reporting services can be better integrated to collect all known issues (something that Open311 will eventually enable).
We need to be better at making sense of the bigger picture. Twitter and Facebook updates have two roles: news that only matters to a few people (“the kittens are ok!”) and data points that matter to us all. They are a vast mesh of individual reports that can be mined for information. It’s a real-time Mass Observation Project. On election nights, broadcasters make sense of millions of votes cast across thousands of districts. A natural disaster should be treated the same way. Making sense during chaos is hard. The big media players — newspapers and broadcasters — should do it (hint: more useful than reporting live from a big puddle in Battery Park City). But so could groups of data nerds.
In all this, what about the poor? What about people with no broadband to fuel a browser full of tabs? Or people with no weather nerd co-worker giving updates via irc? I’m lucky to have the resources and time to spend a rain-lashed weekend trawling around online. Broadband, a weather-proof house, a reasonable salary, and no diapers to change. These privileges give me time to hunt for news and to piece together my own conclusions. In a world of filter bubbles, am I also getting some kind of crisis news advantage? Or just wasting my weekend? Ultimately, Tropical Storm Irene turned out to be a non-crisis in Crown Heights, unlike North Carolina or Vermont. But in the next crisis to come, I’ll be looking for a powerful team effort from dataheads, broadcasters and citizens, making sense of the data explosion for everyone’s benefit.
Post by Frank Hebbert, Director of Civic Works at OpenPlans.