Scientists already have lots of tools to track hurricanes: radar, satellite images, "Hurricane Hunter" aircraft. But now there's a new one: the photo-sharing site Flickr.
Researchers searched Flickr for photos taken in October and November 2012 whose tags, titles or descriptions included "Hurricane Sandy," "Sandy," or "hurricane." They plotted when each photo was taken, and compared that to a graph of atmospheric pressure in New Jersey in the same period. Turns out, the number of Sandy photos spiked at 8pm Eastern time on October 29th—exactly when atmospheric pressure plummeted, and Sandy made landfall. That analysis appears in the journal Scientific Reports. [Tobias Preis et al., Quantifying the Digital Traces of Hurricane Sandy on Flickr]
Of course, it may seem obvious that as winds picked up and Sandy hit the coast, there were more downed trees and property damage to photograph. But media hype could have also pushed more people to pay attention—and take photos—during the storm's peak. Either way, researchers say crowd-sourced storm data might give governments, insurance companies, and emergency responders a way to gauge a storm's progress and impact, in a way that weather data might not reveal. Assuming internet and cell service is up and running, of course.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]