“Downtown #Miami looks like a watery war zone,” tweeted one user on September 10, 2017, as Hurricane Irma ripped through the city. The attached video showed wind and water battering the sides of high-rise buildings.
The tweet was part of a spike in social media activity that now comes hand-in-hand with natural disasters. This time, a team from MIT’s Urban Risk Lab put social media to work in one Florida county.
With Irma bearing down, the researchers piloted a free, online tool to crowd-source information about flood conditions from social media and post it to a map in real-time, allowing emergency managers better respond to local needs.
Even though the tool received little traffic during Irma—it was tested in an area that suffered less flooding than anticipated—the researchers and emergency responders saw the pilot as successful – the beginning of a partnership between MIT scientists, local government, and the public.
“When the [weather] event is over, residents often have the best information about the situation near them, and through smartphones and social media, we now have the network to be able to collect information,” said Tomas Holderness, a research scientist at the Risk Lab who led the project.
To use the tool, called RiskMap.us, users simply send a message to the project’s “chatbot,” which replies automatically with a one-time link to fill out a flood report, which is then added to an interactive map. The tool is linked to Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram, a text messaging app.
The researchers partnered with officials from Broward County and originally planned to launch it after this year’s hurricane season, but, with Irma bearing down, the team put it online. Broward is Florida’s second most populous county, home to just under two million people, including the city of Ft. Lauderdale.
Over the weekend, Irma’s path shifted west, and Broward County experienced only a fraction of the flooding that was anticipated. This was good news for both county officials, and it still gave the researchers enough data to test their tool.
Though the map received only one completed flood report and the team saw just a handful of posts on social media from Broward County, over 8,000 people viewed the map during the storm, Holderness said, all data that the team can put to use.
“In the background, we were collecting analytics and looking at social media as a whole and seeing what was going on, so it’s given us a lot of information that we can use to hone the system,” said Holderness.
“I think that for this storm, because we launched it so late…we weren’t really able to witness its capability,” said Lenny Vialpando, deputy director of Broward’s Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department. With a concerted media campaign before the start of hurricane season, Vialpando said that he thinks the message will catch on.
Holderness said that while RiskMap.us is currently only capable of handling flood data, Irma created other hazards that the team hopes to find ways to capture with the tool for future natural disasters.
“We would love for people to be able to report that their power is out, that the street light is out, that they’ve got wind damage, that a tree was down,” Vialpando said. “We can start staging resources and start requesting things before the storm is over.”
RiskMap.us is an expansion of a project called PetaBencana that Holderness co-developed in 2014 to map flooding in Jakarta, Indonesia, during the monsoon season. The city’s government was very receptive to the project, Holderness said, and integrated the map into their emergency response process.
Holderness joined the Risk Lab a year ago and worked with the lab’s director, Miho Mazereeuw, to create a version of the tool for urban areas in the U.S., starting with Broward County.
“A lot of people were really keen to use it, we had a couple of messages from people in southern counties—‘Can you turn it on for our county?’” said Holderness, who added that expanding the tool would not be a technical challenge.
“It’s a people problem,” Holderness said, “we need to make sure that we’re working in a way that is complementary to existing emergency management systems.”
In the coming year, Holderness said that the team hopes to bring the tool to more counties in Florida and other urban areas in the U.S.