As Superstorm Sandy threatened the East Coast of the United States in fall of 2012, people stocked up on bread and batteries. They boarded their windows. And they tweeted. During the height of the storm and its impact, between October 26 and November 10, people sent more than 20 million hurricane-related tweets.
Now, scientists have taken almost 10 million of those tweets and used them to show where Sandy hit. They also found that tweets about the storm’s damage were associated with how much financial support ended up getting handed around. The results show that social media can be used to track the damage from natural disasters. And they suggest that eventually, these social networks might be able to contribute to disaster response.
These days, if an earthquake happens miles away, you may read about it on Twitter before you even feel the tremor. In some cases, earthquake information actually travels faster via tweet than from scientific instruments. In 2009, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency held the DARPA Network Challenge — a contest designed to see how social media and the Internet could be used to solve time-sensitive problems. Manuel Cebrian, a computational social scientist now based at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Clayton, Australia, won that challenge with his colleagues by using social media to hunt down 10 red weather balloons released across the United States.
Since then, Cebrian and his colleagues have been applying social networks to other, more disastrous events.
First, they tried to see if they could predict outbreaks of contagious disease. But soon, they turned their minds to large-scale disasters. Hurricane Sandy was the perfect target. It was a disaster big enough that everyone cared about it. The storm, which made landfall in New Jersey on October 29, 2012, killed at least 147 people. It also caused $50 billion in damages and left 8.5 million people without power.
The disaster was large — and came at a time when Twitter had become “a pervasive technology that everyone was using,” Cebrian explains. This made Sandy a good storm to test the powers of Twitter.