The Madeira Floods: GoogleMaps, GoogleDocs, Twitter and community


Last weekend’s floods in Madeira became a case study on the role of social media and common citizens in spreading news and data in case of disaster. I’ll be writing a few posts about some things I did to help cover the event, and how traditional media was left far behind in the stream of information. Again.

The Event

Saturday, 20th February. Madeira island is hit by a storm, raining more in two hours than in a whole month. Waves of mud drag rocks, houses and cars down the hills, ending up in downtown Funchal where the rivers meet, flooding buildings, and swallowing whoever failed to escape the fury of the waters.  Twitter was hectic with accounts of destruction, questions about what was going on, and, maybe a sign to take in consideration, videos. The traditional media was slow to respond: besides a few breaking news stories in some news websites, there wasn’t much for the information starved users. If you wanted to know what was going on you had to follow the #tempmad hashtag, fed by descriptions of locals that witnessed tragedy unfold right on their doorstep.

Lots of links to YouTube started to appear in the timeline – there were NO photos available in the first hours, and pictures wouldn’t make any justice to the dimension of the disaster. Video was the first instinct for the majority of users – and there was constant retweeting of the scarce information available, most of it provided by one user, @lindamachado, that became the main figure in the eye of the Twitter storm. But besides Twitter, there were no news to be found anywhere else. Portuguese public cable news channel was the only main media trying to do a coverage of the events, resourcing to – guess what? – Twitter, my map (i’ll talk about it in a bit), YouTube videos, and phone interviews, that were hard to make because the storm disrupted the service in many parts of the island.

We have to look at the specific circumstance that allowed social networks to become the main source and channel for all the news about the flood: it was Saturday, shortly after lunch. People had free time, they didn’t have to go to work, and the newsrooms were in weekend mode, which means even more understaffed. To tell you the truth, for most televisions and newspapers, real coverage began on Monday. Until night news around dinner time, there was almost no new data  about the tragedy in mainstream media, while was starting to gain unforeseen proportions.

Google maps and docs

When I saw the first tweets i immediately thought about creating a Google map to aggregate some information and videos, so people could see all the available information that was getting diluted in the Twitter stream (it’s the map above). All i had to do was to fish for YouTube links and relevant info, and asked users following  #tempmad to contribute. Although in the beginning i didn’t have many contributions, the map generated lots of interest: it showed up and was referenced in the public national TV live coverage, and it was embedded in two major newspaper websites. In the first hours it had more than 10.000 views, reaching 30.000 in the first 48 hours. This proves how huge was the demand for information that traditional media weren’t able to provide.

Then i noticed there was a website created on Netvibes that was also trying to gather all the scattered information on twitter, other websites and forums. I joined efforts with the author of the website, a process i’ll explain in a different post, and added my map to the website. Recently, i added a few more features using mapping tools and google forms and docs.

Since there was a problem with the number of victims (bodies keep showing up but the numbers are going down) we decided to ask the community to report the deaths they knew. For that I built a small form, to cross-reference with the official data. It took 5 minutes to set up the form, and feed the results into the page. I also wanted to use a map for the official results, and i created a new one, based on a spreadsheet. Every time the number changes, all we have to do is to edit the spreadsheet, instead of a live edit on GoogleMaps. What i’ll try to do is to layer the different information in one single map, if you have any ideas to do that let me know.

Another novelty I read about yesterday and just had to use, was the Umapper feature that allows to get tweets from a specific location. I used it to show tweets with #tempmad from Madeira, as you can see below:

With the perspective of more rain for this weekend this map might come in handy to visualize the ongoing events.

This series will continue with the analysis of the work of an improvised team. Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “The Madeira Floods: GoogleMaps, GoogleDocs, Twitter and community”

  1. We have a house and many friends in Madeira. when we first heard about what was going on, the first instinctive thing to do was to grab the cellphone and try to speak to anyone of our friends in the island. to no avail. Soon, the only source of information was Twitter. I happened to start using twitter only a few days before, to try and find out its use for my job (PR officer in a company in interior design products) It came home to me immediately, not only a fascinating medium but no doubt my only – and if I say only I mean ONLY source of information and of comfort… Even if this comment is perhaps not very instructive or useful, it is meant to be a tribute to Alex, Linda, Fernando and many others that may be more anonymous but no less important.. They deserve it, though the governmental officials (politicians no doubt) are already trying to steal the merit. Shame on them!

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