Predicting Questions, Building Answers
With hurricane Sandy churning far off the Florida coast, we began anticipating questions people would have around the storm. And then we tried to code answers to those questions as fast as we could.
In order, those questions turned out to be:
Where’s the storm forecast to go? For this, we dusted off our Hurricane Tracker, built for hurricane Irene, and fed it with the National Weather Service data for Sandy. As with almost all of our work, we made it free and easy to embed, and many news outlets did.
What zone am I in? Again, we dusted off something made for Irene — our NYC Evacuation Zone Map. We updated it with better colors and areas newly designated as Zone A. We also published a project I’d been working on since Irene: a Storm Surge Map of the entire New York and New Jersey coastline.
Where’s the storm now? As the storm approached land, we switched layers in the hurricane tracker from the forecast track to a real-time radar image.
What systems are closing, and when? We knew there was a good chance the subways and other transit services would be shut down ahead of the storm. We also knew that there was no single place where all of that information resided. So days before the storm, we built our Transit Tracker. Thanks to Steve Melendez coding it over the weekend, we had it running when officials announced the transit shutdown plans. As an added bonus, the tracker is fed by a Google spreadsheet, so multiple producers can update it simultaneously.
Where’s the water rising? With everything shuttered, we wanted to help people watch the storm’s effects in real time. The National Weather Service maintains a network of flood-level monitors on the coast and on inland rivers. We took a feed off that system and modified it slightly to show pop-up charts for our Flood Gauge Watch — which we monitored through the storm.
As the storm hit, Melendez and I worked at WNYC under backup power making minor fixes and trying to catch up on our election-night mapping project.
After the storm, the team tackled two more questions:
What’s the traffic like? We heard traffic was gridlocked as people returned to work Wednesday, so we resurfaced our Traffic Map to show the trouble spots — which included most of Manhattan.
Which subway lines are open? Anticipating the subway system would open in stages, we wanted give people a map as the restoration progressed. I guessed that the MTA would provide a list of partially-open lines before they had maps, so Louise Ma built a beautiful base map from files left over from our Lost Subways project and prepared to update it. Melendez found a clever way to let people to pan and zoom it like a Google map. But I was wrong: The MTA issued clear PDF maps right away, so we scrapped Ma’s map and fed the official version into Melendez’s Changing Trains app.
There’s a lot more we wished we could have done — and could have done better. That may be the subject of another post. But we hope we what we made provided answers when they were needed.
- John Keefe