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As Sandy Approaches the East Coast, Hackers Build Tools to Understand the Storm

BY Nick Judd | Monday, October 29 2012

A group of volunteer hackers concentrated in MIT's Media Lab have built this map of live-streaming webcams in and around Hurricane Sandy's expected path. The page also allows users to add live streams to the list.

The live stream map reuses source code originally written to present live streams for people to follow along with Occupy Wall Street protests, says Charlie deTar, the MIT Media Lab Ph.D student who is hosting the map.

Here's how he explains it:

At it's root, it's incredibly simple -- only a small
step beyond just putting pins on a map. The real work is in collecting
a good list of livestreams to show.

With an web app like this, I don't expect it to be directly "useful" in
a disaster response or community empowerment sort of way -- the data is
too coarse and slow. It's more about developing a culture around
sharing video around current events, and an open source culture of
hacking and using it. The fact that this is just a couple hundred lines
of simple code, and people have an immediate way to plug in and work on
it, can help to develop a culture of digital empowerment where people
help each other out.

The project is part of Hurricane Hackers, which a few folks at the MIT Media Lab started over the weekend and which sort of blew up, exposure-wise, after BoingBoing mentioned it early Monday morning. The group is also working on a timeline of hurricane events and trying to brainstorm other useful ways to engage their technology expertise. For example, someone floated the idea of creating a page that would make it easy for people to upload the names, images, and testimonials of people who have lost their lives in the storm. Another proposal offers to get a sense of where there's power and where there isn't by checking where DNS servers are up and computers are accessible via the Internet.

In the Caribbean, 65 people have already died as a result of Sandy's whipping winds and torrential rain. The entire mid-Atlantic is bracing for the downpour, storm surge, and sustained high winds. New York City suspended all public transportation Sunday night and ordered the evacuation of its lowest-lying coastal areas earlier that afternoon. Projects like the one Hurricane Hackers are putting together offer a way for people safely indoors to track the storm's course and to get updates from the more adventurous among us who pass along what they see via social media — for better or worse.

While some people are trying to help people understand the storm through social media, there's also no shortage of Internet pranksters out to have a bit of fun. (There's a collaborative document to keep track of those, too.) Tom Phillips, the MSN international editor who runs the tumblr Is Twitter Wrong, used a recent post to point out a long list of hoax pictures or ones mislabeled as coming from the hurricane when in reality they were from previous events.

It's always up for debate how useful these projects are in the thick of a storm. Even the nicest web application isn't foremost in the mind of someone who is without power or Internet access. Regardless of the impact during the storm, though, keep an eye on how people like WNYC's John Keefe use their web skills to explain the hurricane. Over the past couple of years, it's become a lot easier to design, build and launch web-based interactive mapping applications on short turnaround thanks to advances from companies like CartoDB, which Keefe has been using to build maps for WNYC, and MapBox.

Keefe's latest map is built on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flood gauge data, which is updated in near-real time. NOAA makes the data available as a KML shapefile, which makes it easy to pull into a nicely styled map, as Keefe is doing, but also means that anyone could also drag the file into Google Earth and click along for themselves.

Regardless of whatever else happens, so long as their power stays on, Sandy will be an opportunity for hackers to show the Internet what new tools like these can do.

The most recent forecasts indicate Sandy is expected to make landfall in central New Jersey by this evening.

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