Website tracks Hurricane Sandy tweets

Information technology students create website to gather geographic data

A screenshot from a website for tracking and mapping tweets related to Hurricane Sandy, created by information technology graduate students Brian Schnitzer and Rob Williams.

Just because a record-breaking superstorm hit the Northeast doesn’t mean Rochester Institute of Technology students will miss classes or stop learning. In fact, two students saw Hurricane Sandy as an opportunity to harness the power of social media to observe the geographic implications of a storm.

Brian Schnitzer, an information technology master’s student from Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and Rob Williams, an information technology master’s student from Harvard, Mass., created their own website for tracking and mapping tweets related to Hurricane Sandy.

Currently, the app pins a tweet regarding Hurricane Sandy on the world map and displays it for 10 seconds. It then stores the message and location in a database, before displaying the next tweet.

“We want to collect a timeline of tweets from Sandy’s start to finish,” Williams says. “If everything holds up, we’ll have stored up to 150,000 geo-located tweets by the end of Oct. 30.”

The students have spent the 2012 fall quarter learning new uses of social media in their Geographic Information Science and Technology class with Brian Tomaszewski, a professor in the Department of Information Sciences and Technologies. The class gives students hands-on experience with technologies, such as Global Positioning Systems, Geographic Information Systems and virtual globes like Google Earth, to provide a better representation and understanding of the earth.

“We had originally been planning to map the election with this project, but when we saw the opportunity in Sandy we sat down and created working prototype that could collect and display Sandy’s Twitter data,” Schnitzer says. “Development time for the website was very short because we used the application programming interface, API, from both Google and Twitter.”The website will only stay up for the duration of Hurricane Sandy, but the team plans to continue developing the site’s planned functionality indefinitely.

“Eventually, we would like the site to be an analytical tool for someone with a user inputted search term to gather live tweet data and analyze it anyway they want,” Schnitzer says.

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