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Staying ahead of a superstorm with open-data visualizations

Image of wind map over North America.
Snapshot of North American wind map visualization on 30 October 2012. Hovering your mouse over the map tells you the wind speed of a particular region. Image courtesy wind map.

Hurricane Sandy, widely dubbed 'Frankenstorm' by the media, caused devastation and death across the US east coast last week, but the latest satellite and government data were used by infomediaries - individuals or groups that create value out of information - to turn a voluminous amount of data into useful, life-saving, and, some-might-say, beautiful mashup of text, graphics, video, and animations.

On the website 'Strata: making data work' - created by Tim O'Reilly, founder of O'Reilly media and a prominent advocate of the open-source movement - a number of examples are given of open government data feeds used as sources for critical infrastructure during one the largest storms to ever hit the US.

Beautiful, deadly, and helpful

A wind map visualization shows live wind currents across the North American continent, which are reminiscent of psychedelic art in motion. The surface wind forecast data comes from the National Digital Forecast Database, which is revised every hour. Top wind speeds are located over lakes or offshore according to the website.

On Tuesday 30 October the strongest winds above 30 miles per hour were, unsurprisingly, concentrated in the New York area. But, the website does have a caveat that its data shouldn't be used to fly a plane, sail a boat, or fight wildfires, and that traditional maps of temperature and wind may be more useful about weather details.

Snapshot of Civiguard map showing evacuation centers and zones on 30 October 2012. There doesn't appear to be a legend, but it seems fairly obvious you really don't want to be in the red zones. Image courtesy Civiguard.

Government representatives have noticed open data's impact during the crisis. Matt Lira, the director of digital for the majority leader in the US House of Representatives says: "This dynamic wind map is an example of how open government data can be utilized in effective & creative ways," on his Twitter page.

Crisis maps and websites consisting of open government data were available when traditional news websites used by the public to stay up-to-date on the superstorm collapsed due to flooded data centers.

The Civiguard application provides an instant evacuation zone checker for smartphones and web browsers.

It does, however, have a disclaimer: users have to agree to not sue Civiguard or its partners based on the information it provides.

Image of Storm-Surge Flood Zones map.
Image showing potential storm-surge flooding by hurricane size on 30 October 2012. Image courtesy Storm-Surge Flood Zones map.

Another example is WNYC's Storm-Surge Flood Zones map of potential hurricane-caused flooding in New York and New Jersey areas.

This application was developed with help from Vizzuality, an open-source company which creates interactive visualizations of scientific data and the map uses information from a variety of sources including NYC Open Data and the National Hurricane Program Resource Center.

Even commercial giant Google got involved, with real-time crisis response maps available on its search homepage, triggered by Sandy-superstorm-related keywords.

This data is derived from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service, US Geological Survey, weather.com, US Naval Research Laboratory, and Storyful.

This rapid consolidation of open data, technology, government, commercial companies, and savvy individuals provided critical emergency and morale-boosting services, showing how open government data in the right context adds essential value to the public and, from what we can see, without risking individual privacy.

- Adrian Giordani

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