Storming the ‘Geolocals’ in the Eye of Irene

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When I programmed content for an online audience there was little I hoped for more than a blustery, blanketing snowstorm keeping everyone indoors and online. No serious damage or injuries, of course; no power outages (at least not in homes with connected computers). But lots of build-up, prognostication about impending traffic snarls and general mayhem or seizure — in other words, a pause in all normalcy replaced with irrationality. Anything that would push or attract people back to their computers, like a digital campfire drawing everyone in for cozy comfort with people they never otherwise would.

Storm-obsessed were easy prey, I must say. TV coverage documented a few points of view and provided the stirring drama while people in the chats or message boards or walls provided the oral history. Keeping visitors informed and engaged, seeing one another’s “user-generated” media and generally complaining was a major part of the programmatic trick.

Now this mercurial Irene had me thinking less about the weather (in Virginia I lost a few twigs; it rained some) and more about how some of the clever new geolocation/geosocial applications took advantage of a situation where people would suddenly be needing to find and purchase things they normally would not; others would simply want to reach out to anyone in a particular location to give an eyewitness account: “Is the deli still open?”

For intel on this I chatted up a couple young guns in the space and found, unsurprisingly, weather is still a money maker.

We saw some interesting listings during Irene, from batteries purchases and sharing, to sharing books or providing parking spaces to protect cars against the flood

Localmind, a leader in revealing what’s going on at this moment in places other than where you’re standing, found Irene gave an increase in overall activity of 10%, the company told me. Not enormous at first glance but consider Localmind is available worldwide and Irene focused her selective fury and one quadrant of one country. A few examples of the interface and queries people were putting on it include the expected and and the paranoid.

Founder Lenny Rachitsky told me that not only were people using the service a lot around weathering the storm but also the typical time of response decreased and, Rachitsky said, “There was an increase in response rate.”

“I think it was the novelty combined with the magic of connecting with people from far away,” he said. “And the time they had while waiting for the storm to hit.”

He went on to note other observations following Irene, as well as bumps with other larger news events — no surprise.

“I’ve noticed a very common trend of creating transient venues in Foursquare for every major natural disaster and news event, that people spontaneously find and check into, he said. “We saw this with the storm on the East Coast a few months back, the news of Osama’s death, and now this. It seems to be a very East-Coast thing, as we haven’t seen this as much on the West Coast. What’s missing is a way for those people to communicate, both internally and with people interested in knowing what’s happening at the virtual-event.”

Horatiu Boeriu of Grabio, a geo-marketplace, said they “absolutely” saw traffic moved by the storm.

“We saw some interesting listings during Irene,” he said, “from batteries purchases and sharing, to sharing books or providing parking spaces to protect cars against the flood.”

Boeriu estimated a 25% bump in activity during the storm period.

I asked if they learned anything valuable from the data and just watching activity. Boeriu said they learned location-based apps can play an “important role in these type of situations.”

“Being able to locate items around you or even communicate with people nearby can make a difference,” he said. “As far as usage, it was interesting to see how innovative these apps can be by allowing the users to choose the type of content being shared, all based on their immediate needs.”

The overall upsurge affected general hyperlocals like Patch which claimed a 75% increase in traffic. According to FishbowlNY, Patch’s chief editor Brian Farnham pointed to the heart of what Patch does as a reason.

“With wall-to-wall storm coverage on seemingly every channel, it may seem odd that Patch, too, proved to be so necessary to communities affected by Irene,” Farnham told FishbowlNY. “But over and over again we heard the same thing from our users in these regions: ‘Patch was our essential source for information during the hurricane.’ After all, whether winds added up to Cat 1 or Cat 2 or ‘just’ a tropical storm doesn’t matter as much to people as whether their town is flooded or when their power will come back on.”

On the NYC Severe Weather Ushahidi crowdsourcing site (see image below), realtime, hyperlocal geolocation is on display in a beautiful interface for residents in New York affected by the storm. The site crowdsources damage reports from citizens as well as outages, downed trees, etc. and their input appears on a heat-map indicating all the details upon hover-click. It’s a must-see.

, another great, fast-moving site where people meet to perform your unwanted tasks and find odd jobs (I’d call it “Little Brother”) did not, on the other hand, find its marketplace was affected by the storm. Likely owing to company still being in gowth mode and not penetrating the Northeast yet.

Or, like Irene, perhaps people can be just as mercurial.
Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight.