Nowcasting Disaster Damage

December 06, 2016 by Yury Kryvasheyeu, Haohui Chena, Nick Obradovich, Esteban Moroe, Pascal Van Hentenryck, James Fowler, Manuel Cebrian

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Could social media data aid in disaster response and damage assessment? Countries face both an increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters due to climate change. And during such events, citizens are turning to social media platforms for disaster-related communication and information. Social media improves situational awareness, facilitates dissemination of emergency information, enables early warning systems, and helps coordinate relief efforts. Additionally, spatiotemporal distribution of disaster-related messages helps with real-time monitoring and assessment of the disaster itself. Here we present a multiscale analysis of Twitter activity before, during, and after Hurricane Sandy. We examine the online response of 50 metropolitan areas of the United States and find a strong relationship between proximity to Sandy’s path and hurricanerelated social media activity. We show that real and perceived threats – together with the physical disaster effects – are directly observable through the intensity and composition of Twitter’s message stream. We demonstrate that per-capita Twitter activity strongly correlates with the per-capita economic damage inflicted by the hurricane. Our findings suggest that massive online social networks can be used for rapid assessment (“nowcasting”) of damage caused by a large-scale disaster.