Public Release: 

Hurricane Sandy's impact measured by millions of Flickr pictures

University of Warwick

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IMAGE: Number of pictures posted on Flickr and the atmospheric pressure in New Jersey between Oct. 20 and Nov. 20, 2012. view more

Credit: Tobias Preis and Suzy Moat

A new study has discovered a striking connection between the number of pictures of Hurricane Sandy posted on Flickr and the atmospheric pressure in New Jersey as the hurricane crashed through the US state in 2012.

Hurricane Sandy was the second-costliest hurricane to hit the US, hitting 24 states in late October last year, with New Jersey one of the worst affected.

In 2012 32 million photos were posted on image hosting website Flickr and by counting the number of pictures tagged either 'Hurricane Sandy', 'hurricane' or 'sandy' between October 20 and November 20 2012, a team of researchers led by two Warwick Business School academics, Tobias Preis, Associate Professor of Behavioural Science and Finance, and Suzy Moat, Assistant Professor of Behavioural Science, found a strong link to atmospheric pressure dropping in New Jersey.

In fact, the highest number of pictures posted were taken in the same hour in which Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey. In Quantifying the Digital Traces of Hurricane Sandy on Flickr, to be published in Scientific Reports today (Tuesday November 5), Tobias Preis and Suzy Moat, of Warwick Business School, Steven Bishop and Philip Treleaven, of UCL, and H. Eugene Stanley, of Boston University, suggest that using such online indicators could help governments measure the impact of disasters.

Preis and Moat's work has previously uncovered a range of intriguing links between what people look for online and their behaviour in the real world. Recent results revealed that changes in how frequently people searched for financial information on Google and Wikipedia could be interpreted as early signs of stock market moves, and that internet users in countries with a higher per capita GDP search for more information about the future.

"Our steadily increasing use of digital technology is opening up new and fruitful ways to document and follow human actions," said Dr Preis. "Building on our recent work, we asked whether data from photos uploaded to Flickr could have been used to measure the impact of Hurricane Sandy.

"Our new results show that the greatest number of photos taken with Flickr titles, descriptions or tags including the words 'hurricane', 'sandy' or 'Hurricane Sandy' were taken in exactly the hour which Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey.

"Examination of the number of Hurricane Sandy related photos taken before and after landfall reveals a striking correlation with environmental measurements of the development of the hurricane." Dr Moat added: "As the severity of a hurricane in a given area increases, atmospheric pressure drops. We found that as atmospheric pressure in New Jersey fell the number of photos taken rose and as atmospheric pressure climbed again the number of photos taken fell. (See graphs attached)

"Plotting the data revealed that the number of photos taken increased continuously while 'Sandy' was moving towards the coast of the US. 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.

"Appropriate leverage of such online indicators of large disasters could be useful to policy makers and others charged with emergency crisis management: in particular if no secondary environmental measures are available."

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Quantifying the Digital Traces of Hurricane Sandy on Flickr is published in Nature Publishing Group's Scientific Reports today, at http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/131105/srep03141/full/srep03141.html

This URL will become live when the embargo lifts at 2pm UK time on November 5 2013. Copies of the paper ahead of the embargo can also be requested from Tobias.Preis@wbs.ac.uk.

Please see graphs attached for editorial use or contact Ashley Potter at ashley.potter@wbs.ac.uk for them.

To interview Tobias Preis contact:

Email: Tobias.Preis@wbs.ac.uk
Tel: 024 765 28422
Mobile: 00 49 178 3358225

To interview Suzy Moat contact:

Email: Suzy.Moat@wbs.ac.uk
Tel: 024 765 73197
Mobile: 07989 320018

Or contact:

Ashley Potter
Press & PR Officer
Warwick Business School
The University of Warwick
Coventry
CV4 7AL
Tel: +44 (0)24 7657 3967
Mob: +44 (0)7733 013264
Email: Ashley.potter@wbs.ac.uk

Warwick Business School has in-house broadcasting facilities for TV and radio. We have an ISDN line for radio and for television interviews we have the Globelynx TVReady network, a list of Warwick experts is available. If you are looking for an expert in an area that is not listed, please contact Ashley Potter. Our ISDN number is 024 7647 1287.

Notes to editors

Warwick Business School, located in central England, is the largest department of the University of Warwick and the UK's fastest rising business school according the Financial Times. WBS is triple-accredited by the leading global business education associations and was the first in the UK to attain this accreditation. Offering the full portfolio of business education courses, from undergraduate through to MBAs, and with a strong Doctoral Programme, WBS is the complete business school. Students at WBS currently number around 6,500, and come from 125 countries. Just under half of faculty are non-UK, or have worked abroad. WBS Dean, Professor Mark P Taylor, is among the most highly-cited scholars in the world and was previously Managing Director at BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager.

Tobias Preis is an Associate Professor of Behavioural Science and Finance at Warwick Business School. His recent research has aimed to carry out large scale experiments on complex social and economic systems by exploiting the volumes of data being generated by our interactions with technology. In 2010, Preis headed a research team which provided evidence that search engine query data and stock market fluctuations are correlated. In 2012, Preis and his colleagues Helen Susannah Moat, H. Eugene Stanley and Steven R. Bishop used Google Trends data to demonstrate that Internet users from countries with a higher per capita GDP are more likely to search for information about the future than information about the past. Preis received his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in 2010 and draws on an interdisciplinary background in physics, economics, and computer science. He has authored more than 30 scientific publications, published a book about the physics of financial markets and acts as a reviewer for more than 15 leading international journals. Preis serves as an Academic Editor of the multidisciplinary journal PLoS ONE. Preis advises government agencies as well as private companies on potential exploitation of online digital traces. More information can be found on his personal website http://www.tobiaspreis.de.

Dr Suzy Moat is a computational social scientist, studying how information flows between people, and how it affects their current and future decisions. Her current work investigates these questions through analysis of data from online activity alongside large scale records of real world behaviour, drawing on her background in cognitive science, linguistics and computer science. In recent studies, in collaboration with Tobias Preis, H. Eugene Stanley and colleagues, Dr Moat has provided evidence that patterns in searches for financial information on Google and Wikipedia may have offered clues to subsequent stock market moves, and that Internet users from countries with a higher per capita GDP are more likely to search for information about years in the future than years in the past. Dr Moat was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh and won a series of prizes during her studies. Since 2011, Moat has secured £3.3 million of funding from UK, EU and US research agencies. Her work has been featured by television, radio and press worldwide, including recent pieces on CNN and the BBC. She is Assistant Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School, where she co-directs a small research team working on these questions.

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