Tracking the data storm around Hurricane Sandy

When natural disasters loom, public open government data feeds become critical infrastructure.

Just over fourteen months ago, social, mapping and mobile data told the story of Hurricane Irene. As a larger, more unusual late October storm churns its way up the East Coast, the people in its path are once again acting as sensors and media, creating crisis data as this “Frankenstorm” moves over them.

Hurricane Sandy is seen on the east coast of the United States in this NASA handout satellite image taken at 0715 GMT, October 29, 2012.

[Photo Credit: NASA}

As citizens look for hurricane information online, government websites are under high demand. In late 2012, media, government, the private sector and citizens all now will play an important role in sharing information about what’s happening and providing help to one another.

In that context, it’s key to understand that it’s government weather data, gathered and shared from satellites high above the Earth, that’s being used by a huge number of infomediaries to forecast, predict and instruct people about what to expect and what to do. In perhaps the most impressive mashup of social and government data now online, an interactive Google Crisis Map for Hurricane Sandy pictured below predicts the future of the ‘Frankenstorm’ in real-time, including a NYC-specific version.

If you’re looking for a great example of public data for public good, these maps like the Weather Underground’s interactive are a canonical example of what’s possible.

Matt Lira, the director of digital for the Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, made an important, clear connection between open government, weather data and the a gorgeous wind visualization that has been getting passed around today.

In the context of the utility of weather data, it will be interesting to see if Congress takes action to fund weather satellite replacements.)

In New York City, as the city’s websites faced heavy demand when residents went to its hurricane evacuation finder on Sunday, residents could also go and consult WYNC’s beautiful evacuation map. (Civiguard also activated an instant evacuation zone checker for smartphones and modern browsers.) WNYC data news editor John Keefe is responsible for the map below that puts the city’s open government data in action.

By releasing open data for uses in these apps, New York City and the U.S. federal government are acting as a platform for public media, civic entrepreneurs and nonprofits to enable people to help themselves and one another at a crucial time. When natural disasters loom, public data feeds can become critical infrastructure.

For one more example of how this looks in practice, look at WNYC’s storm surge map for New York and New Jersey.

If you’re a coder interested in working with the tech community, MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito is helping to coordinate #HurricaneHackers working on projects and resources for Hurricane Sandy. The group has made a timeline of events, a list of livestreams, along with aggregating links to official data and social streams, like Instacane, a site that aggregates Instagram images about the hurricane.

Stay safe, keep informed

Hurricane Sandy has meteorologists scared, and for good reason. The federal government is providing information on Hurricane Sandy at Hurricanes.govs and NOAA and sharing news and advisories in real-time on the radio, television, mobile devices and online using social media channels like @FEMA.

As the storm comes in, FEMA recommends to mobile users and for desktops. The Wall Street Journal and Reuters are both live-blogging the news. Like WNYC, the Associated Press Reuters used weather data to populate interactive Hurricane Tracker maps.

People in the path of the storm can download smartphone apps from the RedCross: and FEMA on Android: iOS: or BlackBerry:

If you do not have a smartphone, save 43362 (4FEMA) to your mobile phone and charge it up. If, after #Sandy, you cannot return home and have immediate housing needs, text SHELTER + ZIP code to 43362.

UPDATE: Bob Rudis (@hrbrmstr wrote in to share his R code for live tracking at Github, which he blogged about here. David Smith has already put the code to use in tracking Hurricane Sandy with open data and R at Revolution Analytics.

If you have more examples of data, maps, apps, code or services relevant to the hurricane or its aftermath, please share them in the comments or write to And if you’re in the path of the storm, please stay safe.

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  • Jeanne Holm

    Another good example from USGS (and featured on is the Hurricane Sandy Storm Tide mapper

  • Ronald

    Great Disaster Dashboard can be found here: USA Disasters Dashbaord

    • digiphile

      The page isn’t opening on my browser, Ronald.

  • PeterQuirk

    How would this be possible if Romney’s ideas for privatizing disaster management were allowed to play out? Even his interim step of assigning all disaster management responsibilities to the states would result in inconsistent data services and data quality across state boundaries.

    • digiphile

      Good question. As other commentators have pointed out. under this administration FEMA has a professional emergency manager at the helm, with prior experience in storm-tossed Florida, and has deferred to the states and local government. Which is to say, FEMA has already moved in the direction that former MA governor Romney has suggested.

      What’s less clear is how government data availability would change at the federal level (as in weather or GIS) or local level. States and cities can and do already use their own data and services, meaning that quality is already key. (NYC open data was behind many of the maps in this post.)

      In that context, I’m not sure why electing Romney would result in inconsistent services or quality — can you explain why you think devolving disaster management responsibility would have the results you describe?

  • Dan Bernier

    I made this visualization of Hurricane Sandy issues reported via SeeClickFix:

    I’m still learning. :)

  • Susan Sawyers

    How about a big data visualization of how people can volunteer and/or where to donate funds? “Needs change daily,” according to Roman Shmulenson, executive director of, who is on the ground in Brooklyn. Plenty of people remain without hot water, power and the gas shortage persists. And… it’s snowing which means it’s cold and wet outside.

  • Robert Munro

    Hi Alex – I just followed this from your retweet. I wish I’d seen this post at the time! It is misleading.

    Those of us who helped the the response to Sandy did *not* run open data platforms for 99% of our operations. It would have been reckless to do so, or to encourage open data about at risk populations.

    We processed the aerial damage assessments for FEMA on pictures taking by the Civil Air Patrol ( The images were *never* made public. They contained high-resolution imagery of private property and citizens, many of them in areas at a high risk of exploitation.

    For the people who completed the damage assessments, they were not permitted to scroll through neighboring images or know the exact location: we deliberately limited the potential accuracy and openness, even within our workforce, to specifically address security concerns.

    Finally, the damage assessments that were uploaded to the public Google Map (the ones you can see) were damage assessments averaged across geographic grid squares that did not expose the exact damage at specific locations, let alone the aerial photographs.

    I thank you for reporting on information management in disasters – I realize it’s not a topic most people would write about. But for those of us who work in disaster response, it makes it harder to operate effectively when there are misconceptions that we are operating in way that would be detrimental to the people we are helping.