Drivers on the Storm: How Waze Users Helped FEMA

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Nearly two years have passed since Superstorm Sandy overtook the east coast of the United States. Though it made landfall in the Caribbean and resulted in billions of dollars damage throughout the country, the most pervasive (and often, haunting) images are those of flooded subway tunnels, submerged carousels and dark skyline of New York City.

As one of the most iconic American cities as well as the most populous, it is unsurprising the degree to which we were mesmerized, watching, in awe, as a natural phenomenon barely seven days young wreaked havoc upon one hundred years of industrial and financial prowess.

Everything transpired quite quickly, and it is horrible to imagine the severity of such an event on a completely unprepared population; even with 6 days of emergency preparation, Sandy still managed to be the second-costliest storm at $65 billion in damages.

We are obsessed with bad weather.

Anyone who doubts this need only look at how Sandy received constant media attention and documentation. Despite the fact that nearly 4 million households and businesses lost power, there were still smartphones. So when the photos and videos began to populate in media sites, what viewers and readers saw were Instagram snaps and videos recorded hastily by ordinary citizens while evacuating or relocating to higher ground.

Incredibly, smartphone users continued to check in on Foursquare. And like the all of the lights there you can watch Lower Manhattan go dark:

We recently worked with the Google Creative Lab’s DAT team to put together a 24-hour visualized flow of traffic for a typical day in New York City. Note that the majority of the traffic and congestion occurs south of Central Park along with the bridges and tunnels, exactly where the city goes dark in the Foursquare visualization.

Many of those affected by the storm reached out to friends and family on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook; everyday citizens of New York took to social media to report flooding, power outages and evacuation centers in places where traditional media and emergency services could not access. Social media had the power to get valuable information out of affected areas to those who could best provide aid.

Fueling the response

Among the many challenges FEMA faced that week was the ability to get emergency fuel to service stations that needed it most. But how could they best determine those locations before sending out fuel tankards?

FEMA, through the Departmend of Energy (DOE), reached out to Waze: with a considerable userbase in New York City, could Waze users tell us what was happening on the ground?

Starting the weekend after the storm hit and continuing until November 7th, Waze sent messages to all users in the Tri-State Area asking them for assistance: where are the longest lines, which fuel stations are open, which stations are inaccessible, etc. All they had to do was use the Mapchat function within the app and we would take care of the rest.

But this was long before the W10 or the Connected Citizens Program. Waze was just a traffic app, and there were no custom API’s ready to hand over to FEMA. What began was a long and involved manual process of extracting data from the Mapchat without compromising the privacy of the users.

We mined every Mapchat in the area one-by-one looking for information to help FEMA. We organized the chats by location and manually removed usernames while keeping the coordinates of their notifications. This in turn was handed off to the DOE and FEMA, who then plotted the data on their Crisis Map. Using the data from Waze FEMA was able to distribute their fuel tankards quickly and efficiently in an area plagued by uncertainty.

The aftermath

Looking back it’s very easy to credit this moment as the inception of the W10 and later, the Connected Citizen Program. This was really the first glimpse into the untapped potential of both our userbase and the data it provides. The question lingered- how could Waze use this power for good? How could this be implemented and even automated in emergency situations so that the citizens and the organizations trying to help them (FEMA, Red Cross etc) would have access to information immediately?

It was a matter of months before we got the call from Rio [embedded link to Rio post], and suddenly we were more than just a traffic app.