October 31, 2012

The Urban Geographies of Hurricane Sandy in New York City

Following our two earlier posts showing how discussion of Hurricane Sandy were reflected on Twitter, we present another representation of tweets, focused specifically on how New York City -- the center of both the storm's effects and the media attention around it -- tweeted about the storm.

The following map includes a broader temporal range of tweets dating back to last week on October 24th, up to approximately 1:22pm on Tuesday, October 30th, as the storm was starting to subside and damage be more closely assessed. Tweets included in this dataset contain direct reference to "Sandy" and include more-or-less precise latitude/longitude coordinates (as opposed to being geocoded to less specific scales such as the city or neighborhood level), allowing a greater level of precision, despite sacrificing a significant number of tweets in order to do so, though still leaving us with nearly 16,000 individual observations to work with. In order to show density as opposed to individual points, tweets were then aggregated to the level of census blocks.

Although we definitely see some larger clusters, it is remarkable how spatially dispersed the tweeting about Sandy was. The majority of tweets are located in midtown Manhattan, which was not only the location of the last open Starbucks in the city, but was also hit by widespread power outages. The concentration of tweets around the southern tip of Central Park are likely caused by the infamous dangling crane (and subsequent evacuations) at 57th Street.

While some areas that were hit by flooding see a pattern of increased tweet activity -- for example Battery Park, Dumbo, LaGuardia and Hudson River Park -- it is surprising how few tweets we find in areas that were hit especially hard or where significant events happened. In Breezy Point (not included in the map) a fire destroyed more than eighty homes, but only a handful of tweets come from that same location. Similarly, Sandy inflicted very significant damage to large parts of Rockaway and Coney Island with very little mention in these places on Twitter. Other major events covered by the media, such as the evacuation of the NYU Medical Center just north of Stuyvesant Town or the explosion at ConEd's power station on 14th Street, also see only a few tweets in the immediate vicinity, though perhaps owing to the fact that individuals in these locations would be more concerned about safety than tweeting.

It seems that, when zooming in on the urban scale, the location and density of tweets does not necessarily correlate with areas most effected by Sandy. As the hurricane brought the city to a grinding halt, with businesses and schools closing ahead of the storms, Sandy appears to have been tweeted from the -- relatively -- safe confines of the home, as opposed to the many locations throughout the city which were hard hit, but relatively unrepresented in this virtual representation.

Ultimately, we're left wondering whether Hurricane Sandy represents a case distinct from that of Hurricane Katrina? Though the areas that were the most tweeted from in this case represent both the most densely populated and most well-off, areas such as Harlem don't mirror the experience of Katrina in being devastated by the storm and then wiped off of the virtual representation of the event. Or, as Mark indicated in his earlier post, is it simply difficult to ascertain much from such finely-grained data in cities? Or, as the relative lack of discussion about the devastation Sandy has caused in the Caribbean indicates, has the location of the storm in arguably the world's most important city simply deflected media attention away from other locations?

We don't offer these as definitive conclusions, but instead as provocations, as much deeper analysis needs to be undertaken to more fully understand the relationship between such intensely material events as Hurricane Sandy and virtual representations of them through platforms like Twitter.

For a good reference on areas hard hit by the storm, see this from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/10/30/nyregion/hurricane-sandys-aftermath.html


  1. I'm sure you have better things to do than answer this right now but I'm an architecture student doing a project in SF and am really hoping you can give me some info on how you generate the images. I have geodata in KML's I'm hoping to map out in a similar fashion and was hoping for an easy way how to do this but am totally new to this discipline. Any easy starting points? Thanks in advance.

    Steve steven.clark1@msu.montana.edu

    1. @Steve: This was all done using ArcGIS...if you have an Arc license, you can easily bring your KML files into Arc and play around with things there. If you don't have access to Arc or similar software, we'd probably suggest trying out GeoCommons, which is web-based, free and fairly easy to learn. Good luck!