October 29, 2012

Mapping the Frankenstorm on Twitter

As some of us hunker down in our fortified bunker in Worcester, Massachusetts awaiting the Frankenstorm, and others hang out in the California sunshine, we thought we'd contribute our collective two cents to the discussion of the ongoing storm via mapping -- from Google's crisis map to the New York Times' map of the hurricane's expected path -- in the form of a visualization of Twitter activity around the storm [1]. 

It didn't take long for the term "Frankenstorm" to catch on. Shortly after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration first used the term this past Thursday, the first geotagged tweet was created by @SStirling, a data journalist for the Star-Ledger newspaper in Newark, NJ, around 11:06am that day.

Since then, well over 7,000 geotagged tweets referencing the Frankenstorm have been created in North America. The dataset used here includes exactly 7,056 geotagged tweets collected from DOLLY, from the very first mentioned above until approximately 12:36pm EST on Monday, October 29, just as the storm was starting to pick up along the east coast [2].

Mapping the Frankenstorm

After aggregating the tweets to the county level, a quick glance reveals some striking, if not unsurprising, patterns. Despite being a major national news event, Twitter activity around the storm has been incredibly concentrated along the east coast where the storm is expected to hit the hardest, demonstrating a clear connection to the places in the path of the storm. While itself not surprising, the precise level of concentration is a bit more startling. Indeed, over 40% of the total number of geotagged tweets referencing Frankenstorm in this sample come from just eight counties along the east coast.

And while these counties represent four of the ten largest metropolitan areas in the United States, and the four largest along the east coast, the concentration within these areas demonstrates the extent to which areas which might be just as hard hit -- such as rural Vermont during 2011's Hurricane Irene -- are relatively underrepresented in the virtual reflection of events such as these. But perhaps more interesting than the cluster of references along the east coast is the anomalous concentration of references all the way across the country in southern California.

Frankenstorm Hot Spots

Just 23 counties across the United States had more tweets referencing the Frankenstorm than Los Angeles, which had 46 tweets, breaking up what would otherwise represent a clear effect of distance decay in predicting the number of tweets referencing the Frankenstorm. In contrast to the relatively concentrated pattern discussed above, a cluster of references comparably significant to areas of Maine, Pennsylvania and Virginia pops up around over 2000 miles away from the path of the storm, while areas in between in the American south and midwest show no such clusters.

Though L.A.'s large population makes this concentration of activity somewhat less surprising, the city's position within the national (and global) urban hierarchy offers a somewhat more interesting (at least to geographers!) explanation. When considering L.A.'s centrality within the global air transportation system and the fact that thousands of flights have been affected by the storm, there emerges a range of alternative explanations emphasizing the relationship between Los Angeles and the cities along the east coast more directly affected by the storm. For instance, at least a handful of tweets, like those below from @robyntomlin and @paulhogarth, specifically reference air travel from Los Angeles to the east coast and into the path of the impending Frankenstorm.

So while the analysis presented here is more a confirmation than a revelation, it clearly shows the persistent connections between space and place in online networks like Twitter, as well as how geotagged Twitter content represents a promising way of demonstrating these connections between the virtual and the material. With the worst of the Frankenstorm still yet to come -- as are thousands more tweets, we're sure -- we hope everyone continues to stay safe and dry in the coming days... and that someone goes ahead and starts working on the next ridiculous name for a major storm so that we can do this again in the future!
[1] Despite there being a range of possible keywords possible here -- such as "Hurricane Sandy" itself -- we, in typical Floatingsheep fashion, chose only to map the more ridiculous "Frankenstorm". As such, the analysis here is tempered by this limitation.
[2] No members of the Floatingsheep collective were harmed in the making of this map. Taylor did, however, bravely venture out into the Frankenstorm to make it to the office in order to produce these maps, and his pants were appropriately drenched for this effort.

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