Can social media data give useful real-time information during the progress of natural disasters? A group of academics thinks it could.

Researchers from Warwick University in the UK looked at pictures uploaded to Flickr during the lead-up and aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. As the two graphs below show, there was a strong correlation between the number of pictures taken and atmospheric pressure.

The paper’s authors include Dr Tobias Preis and Dr Suzy Moat who have previously looked at whether searches of financial terms on Google can be used to predict the direction of the stock market.

They suggest users either: a) took more pictures as atmospheric pressure dropped (and wind speed increased) or b) ramped up their attention as they learnt from mainstream media coverage about the storm’s expected arrival time

Dr Moat said:

“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.

“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.”

Two major qualifiers of course though are whether internet networks are functioning during a natural disaster – and the density of social media users in the affected area.

This project looked at photographs with tags, title or description text with any three terms – hurricane, Hurricane Sandy or Sandy – uploaded as public photos between October 20 2012 and November 20 2012. Pictures were accessed via the Flickr public API.

Dr Preis added:

“It should be possible to reproduce this with other feeds including Twitter and the hope is that this holds in the future too. Such feeds would be of use in creating a real-time damage assessment system, which might provide useful information for insurance companies but also for interventions by government parties.”

The full paper Quantifying the Digital Traces of Hurricane Sandy on Flickr is published in the journal Scientific Reports

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