MIT’s RiskMap Helps Floridians Track Irma Flooding

MIT's RiskMap lets people track flooding through social media. Courtesy of Tomas Holderness.

As Hurricane Irma stampeded through Florida over the weekend, residents of Broward
County had a way to track local flooding thanks to a social media-powered map from MIT.

RiskMap uses social media to connect with people who are on the ground in an area. Those
people fill out flood reports to document the extent of the flooding in a specific area, and
the reports are uploaded to a map to show people which areas might be dangerous.

“There was actually very little data available in real time about where flood conditions
were occurring,” says Tomas Holderness, a research scientist at MIT who’s leading the
project. “That’s when we started to think, what are some of the informal things that we can
tap into? Can we just ask people? We can see that they’re talking about it on social media.”

A RiskMap chatbot communicates with people posting about flooding on Facebook,
Twitter, and Telegram and asks them to fill out a flood report. Flood reports take about 40
seconds to complete and include a photo, the precise location, an estimate of the water
depth, and a description. The map can be useful for emergency officials and first
responders in addition to individuals.

Luckily, Broward County—a region in the southeast of Florida that includes Fort
Lauderdale—escaped Hurricane Irma without major flooding. Few problem areas were
reported over the weekend, but Holderness says about 8,000 people were checking
RiskMap to keep tabs on local flood levels.

RiskMap has been working with county government officials in Broward for a few months,
and was planning on piloting the map later this year until Hurricane Irma moved up the
timetable.

Broward County is the first place in the United States to use RiskMap, but the program is
underway in monsoon-prone Indonesia, where during a particularly bad flood Uber
embedded RiskMap into its app to help drivers navigate roads safely.

Tomas Holderness, a research scientist at MIT who is leading RiskMap. Courtesy of Tomas Holderness.

Holderness hopes RiskMap will expand to more areas, but says the limiting factor is the process of creating relationships with local governments. RiskMap needs emergency managers to make the map part of their plan so that both individuals and responders utilize it.

“The key thing is to make sure that we have a really good partnership with the emergency managers who work on the ground so that we know that someone’s looking at the map, so they’re putting the message out, so they’re informing people ahead of time,” Holderness says.

As RiskMap develops, additional features could include tracking power outages and other destruction like downed trees. Tracking storm damage in addition to flooding would have been useful for Broward County over the weekend, Holderness says.

“I’m happy with the way we’ve managed to develop a pretty pioneering approach to
understanding what’s going on in a city in real time,” Holderness says. “We want everyone
to stay safe, we want everyone to stay dry, but it is pretty exciting when you see those
reports bubbling up on the map and you know that other people nearby can now see that
information.”

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