Data Visualizations On Display in Wake of Wildfires, Power Outages

by   |   July 5, 2012 6:28 pm   |   0 Comments

The Denver Post hosted a Google map displaying data related to wildfires and resources for citizens. Above: a view of the map on July 3.

In the last week of June, as wildfires raged in the dry forests of Colorado, journalists at The Denver Post covering the disaster received an invitation from Google: Display on your website a map we have created using data feeds from federal and state authorities, the American Red Cross and other sources. Readers will get information and updates on wildfire locations, weather forecasts, public shelters sites, satellite images and more.

Editors at The Post confirmed the data collected was reliable and then posted the map, Chuck Murphy, an editor at the newspaper, said in an email. The visualization was created by the Google Crisis Response team, a group set up in 2010 after the Haiti earthquake to make information available during disasters. (The group also set up projects in 2011 focusing on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and floods in Vermont.)

While this information resource was just one element in a mix of stories, photographs and video reports published at during the wildfires in Waldo Canyon and other areas, the Google project represents a growing effort by industry and government to create data visualizations of rapidly-changing conditions.

The trend makes sense. Researchers at the American Red Cross and Google have found that people affected by a natural disaster or other crisis quickly head online to search for information that can help them. The 2010 Red Cross survey found that 69 percent of web users expect disaster responders to monitor social media such as Facebook and Twitter to learn where to send help.

Utilities serving Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia posted data visualizations about power outages and restoration estimates for people wondering about their service after a June 29 storm and subsequent heat wave.

For utilities, bringing outage updates to the forefront can be part of a two-way conversation with customers that not only keeps customers informed about power restoration progress. It also can save money because data presented in a visual format like a map means fewer call center inquiries to answer.

ComEd, an electric utility serving Illinois, made this point in May when it unveiled an interactive map to show the location of power outages in the region. The online map also has a form to fill out when the power goes out and it debuted on the web and as part of a new smartphone app designed to let users check and pay their electric bill, report a meter reading and view their account history. In a presentation for about the project, Frank Scumacci, general manager of eChannels at Comed, said his team justified the cost of implementing the app by citing the money saved when customers reported outages through it.

The June 29 storm led to at least 17 deaths and massive power outages in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., The Washington Post reported. On July 1, close to 1 million customers were without power during a post-storm heat wave and newspaper’s website kept a running tally of outages complete with links to utility websites including Baltimore Gas and Electric, Dominion, Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative, Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco) and Potomac Edison.

Pepco map of power outages near Washington D.C., July 3, 2012

An image from Pepco’s website showing power outages in the Washington D.C. region on July 3.


Government Visualizations
Government agencies also posted visualizations to show data collected and services available. In the east, for example, the city of Washington posted a map showing public libraries operating as cooling centers for heat-drenched residents.

Out west, InciWeb, a web portal for wildfires incorporating data from 11 state and regional agencies posts maps that show the locations of wildfires delineate firefighters’ efforts to contain them.

Such maps tell data-driven stories with high utility. That doesn’t mean they attract the most viewers, however. The Denver Post, which has seen web traffic rise during its coverage of the wildfires, found that its pieces showing aerial photos of destroyed neighborhoods were particular draws for online readers, said Murphy.

Michael Goldberg is editor of Data Informed. Email him at

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