Social networks and photo-sharing sites show people reacting to things that are happening around them. There are now so many users that these posts can be used to track major events such as Hurricane Sandy. This approach provides new ways for researchers and organisations to track things using large volumes of publicly-available data. As well as hurricanes, blizzards and other crises, this could work for infectious diseases or perhaps the adoption of fashions or even specific products.
Dr Suzy Moat, from Warwick Business School, said: "Flickr can be considered as a system of large scale real-time sensors, documenting collective human attention. Increases in Flickr photo counts with particular labels may reveal notable increases in attention to a particular issue, which in some cases may merit further investigation for policy makers."
For example, it could be used to measure the impact of natural disasters in cases where no other data exists or is accessible.
In a paper published in Scientific Reports today, Tobias Preis and Suzy Moat of Warwick Business School, Steven Bishop and Philip Treleaven of UCL, and H Eugene Stanley of Boston University, revealed that they were able to show a correlation between the number of pictures of Hurricane Sandy posted on Flickr and the atmospheric pressure in New Jersey as the hurricane crossed the US state in 2012.
The researchers counted the number of Flickr pictures tagged Hurricane Sandy, hurricane, or sandy between October 20 and November 20 2012. They found that the highest number were taken in the hour that Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey.
Dr Moat said: "As the severity of a hurricane in a given area increases, atmospheric pressure drops. Plotting the data revealed that the number of photos taken increased continuously while Sandy was moving towards the coast of the US. This study would suggest that in cases where no external sensors are available, it may be possible to use the number of Flickr photos relating to a topic to gauge the current level of this category of problems."
You can read the paper: Quantifying the Digital Traces of Hurricane Sandy on Flickr