It’s about the info, not the outlet

Google's mapped information on Sandy topped anything news organizations offered

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As Hurricane Sandy devastated the eastern seaboard, news outlets, networks, and Twitter flooded the airwaves with information. For those able to turn to the Internet for help, locating correct information in an instantly digestible format wasn’t an easy as it should have been. While many news outlets did a solid job providing coverage, it was a map produced by Google that stood out as the most comprehensive display of the data available about the storm and its recovery.

Google’s Superstorm Sandy map and its NYC version aggregated information about weather conditions, shelters, evacuation zones, and transportation. The maps were built by Google’s Crisis Response Team which is a project of, Google’s philanthropic arm. The Crisis Response Team has been responding to natural disasters since 2005, when members worked on a similar project for Hurricane Katrina.

Google’s map is effective because it pulls the right data in quickly and displays it clearly. The layout is clear and simply formatted; users can select various layers of information they want displayed. For example, they can filter out all the other layers except for shelters. They can then add on the traffic update layer to see the fastest and safest route to their closest shelter.

Kate Parker,’s communication manager, said that the map’s information comes from a number of government agencies that Google established partnerships with over the years. When there isn’t a natural disaster happening, the crisis team works on forging those partnerships in order to have reliable access to their data. On its New York map, for example, Google pulled in subway alerts from the MTA. The MTA’s website is hardly straightforward, but on Google’s map it’s immediately obvious which trains are running and where there’s a shuttle bus service in place of the adversely affected routes:

Links back to the original sources of the data are abundant. And there is enough information contained within the map itself to provide a clear picture, without there being so much that things get confusing. And it’s easy to find out more information by clicking on the well-curated links. Google freely links to competing information sites—in the top row of links, WNYC’s transit tracker is featured.

Google isn’t a news organization. Creating something this visually compelling and powered by accurate data will undoubtedly make media outlets feel nervous. The map is embeddable—Google wants news organizations to use it. And they did—The New York Times put it in their Lede blog, and put it on their homepage.

In a situation like a hurricane, it’s surely more important to provide clear and correct information quickly than it is to spend time making an interactive from scratch. If Google is doing the best job of collecting and presenting the data citizens need during — and after — a natural disaster, then, unless news organizations can match it, they should be doing their best to share and promote Google’s map.

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Anna Codrea-Rado is a digital media associate at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @annacod. Tags: ,