And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder

The last week has been pretty uneventful, overall—I’ve been working on an iPad portal for one of our work clients, adding more functionality to Party Bus (I took it to the Thursday Hackathon for testing), and so on—until 8:06 last night, when a friend called to ask if we’d heard a loud explosion a moment ago. We hadn’t, but a lot of people on Twitter had. Soon, Reid had set up a map for people to track what they heard, and I hopped online to see if I could help.

We quickly discovered that while Google Maps does allow real-time collaboration, it’s not the best platform for a couple hundred people, many without prior experience editing maps, to be using all at once. People kept changing the map title and description. The map sometimes failed to load an edit button, and even once you hit edit, the controls could be confusing. Folks left comments with their location and experience, which Reid added to the map manually (not a terrible option, but inefficient).

Twelve hours later, we have a pretty good idea of where the sound was, and what it sounded like from different parts of Portland, but there’s still no real explanation. My favorite plausible explanation is that it was an earthquake boom, sort of a shallow quake we can hear but doesn’t produce a noticeable tremor for the seismograph. My favorite fictional explanation is that we’re in an episode of Fringe where everyone is about to find out we’re colliding with a parallel universe.

I really would like to know what caused it, but I also think this made an interesting demo for crisis information-gathering. If it had been something like a chemical leak, where these sort of point-by-point reports could be really helpful, we absolutely need a better mapping system. And we need it to be already in place when people hop online to find out what happened and ask their friends what they heard or saw, because people are most enthusiastic and interested in helping immediately after the incident. There was some activity around that at CrisisCampPDX with wanting to set up a preparedness Crisis Wiki, but we could do much more to get a good toolset in place now.

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12 responses to “And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder

  1. I agree it was an excellent event to watch a group response with. The number of people making contributions was fascinating. The types of contributions I observed are: local reporting, assembling a data gathering tool, a summary of data so far, and suggesting possible explanations or unusual sources of information.

  2. Steven Walling

    An update from Oregonlive says it was a large pipe bomb, and that the sound was amplified by the location and weather conditions.

  3. Pretty impressive how far the sound traveled, even with the hills and cloud cover to reflect it.

  4. The map was an amazing use of Google — I still think the concentration of tags in central SE is more of a reflection of the concentration of Twitterers and Social Media geeks, but the information was still valid, if anecdotal.

    As with any new tech, it wasn’t perfect, but it was enlightening.

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  11. Kirsten Comandich

    I like the title of your post. ;)

  12. As I casually followed this last night, I didn’t think it would amount to anything. But thanks to you, Ried, & Aaron the mystery is solved. I so hope the emergency managers take note of this “test” of real-time crowdsourcing. Good job!