Boulder flooding

Disaster news coverage will be much better in a few years

By Steve Outing

Boulder, Colorado, and surrounding towns were hit recently with days of record rainfall, history-making flooding, and epic damage. The destruction covered larger towns like Boulder and Longmont, and was truly horrific in mountain towns like Jamestown and Lyons. I was in the middle of this (i.e., getting rained on like everyone else), but my family’s house was spared by its location outside the flood plain of local rivers and creeks.

There was a LOT going on, so with power and Internet access available, I watched the news eco-system to try to learn what damage was where, and what conditions were like in various locations that, as a local, I know well. Between checking local news outlets online, Twitter, Facebook (to a lesser extent), etc., it took a lot of searching and sifting to get details. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the details of this local disaster to the degree I desired.

Of course, it’s much better than the “old days” of relying only on broad-path coverage and anecdotal survivor stories from TV and radio news and newspapers; I picked up lots of detailed reports from social media (likely some or much of it inaccurate, some incomplete — such as photos of houses in rivers but no location identification, not even name of the town or river).

But disaster news coverage needs to be much better. It will be in the future.

Here’s a look at what disaster journalism is expected to look like in the years ahead, using the Colorado floods as an example:

Drones provide fine detail

A maddening thing about finding news of the flooding was the inability to get fine detail. Is our friends’ home in Jamestown still there? How badly damaged is it? … Are any segments of the route I need to drive to work flooded or closed to traffic? … Is the Boulder Canyon running/cycling trail destroyed, or still runnable once the mud has been cleared away? … Of those few questions, I could not find answers other than on road closures that would affect my commute; but those tended to be outdated quickly as conditions changed regularly.

Drones and expanded environmental sensor networks hold great promise for providing real-time or very fast data and information in a situation like this in the years ahead.

Let’s start with drones (a.k.a., unmanned aerial vehicles) equipped with still and video cameras, live streaming, and/or specialty sensors. In this disaster, the small town of Lyons was badly flooded and all utilities were knocked out. Most residents evacuated, so they weren’t able to know the fate of their homes, businesses, cars left behind, etc.

In a few years, expect to see drones flying low-altitude image survey missions over disaster towns like Lyons. They will stream a video feed or a series of aerial photos of every block of the town, which can be published for the public to view. Such a drone mission will be inexpensive compared to a helicopter performing the same mission, and more accurate and less costly than piloted-plane imaging flights over the town because of a plane’s necessary higher altitude and thus inferior imaging resolution. The cost will be small enough that multiple drone surveys could be done for Lyons each day during the disaster period.

Actually, what I described above could have been done last weekend; drone technology exists and is in use to do it. In fact, a local drone company that works with the government had plans to do a drone survey of Lyons, but was prohibited. This quote is from a report on the episode at Techdirt.com:

“As you may have heard, Boulder, Colorado, has been hit by massive flooding over the past week, and it’s been something of a mess. A local company, Falcon UAV, makers of special drones which are built for the government, approved by the FAA, and specialize in using GPS and cameras to generate highly accurate maps, started helping to map the damage with those drones. It was basically making very useful, near real-time maps showing the floods. You’d think that would be useful to, say, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency in charge of helping to coordinate the response to the floods. Instead, FEMA ordered the drones grounded or it would have people from Falcon UAV arrested. Once again, this isn’t just some guy with a toy quadcopter trying to take photos. These are drones designed for this sort of thing. As the company explains, this grounding made little sense, and possibly held back relief efforts.”

There’s not much you can say about that incident that doesn’t include the word “stupid.” Falcon UAV’s website homepage drives home the point, with a series of photographs of law-enforcement types using Falcon’s drones.

falconUAVpolice
Mesa County, Colorado, police using a Falcon UAV drone

But once drones are properly regulated by the FAA (likely to be by 2015), we can expect to see such drone aerial surveys of disaster areas as a routine occurrence. So if I’m an evacuated Lyons resident wanting to view the condition of my home, or I want to check on the situation at a relative’s house who lives in the flooded town, it’s available.

The unanswered question about drone use in disasters of the future is whose UAVs will be allowed in the airspace. I expect one or more of these scenarios to play out.

  1. A drone photography company with licensed UAV pilots will be contracted to do an aerial survey or series of surveys. Other non-authorized drone operators will be banned from the disaster-area airspace.
  2. The drone company will sell services to the government agency in charge of the relief effort, and the public will view its images and/or video feeds on the agency’s website and other digital services. News outlets will be allowed to embed the images and/or feeds on their own sites, since this will be public information.
  3. Not being permitted to keep the press (and its drones) out of the disaster area, government disaster and law-enforcement agencies will restrict the disaster-area airspace to a small number of news organizations — perhaps only one, as a “pool” drone to feed images to all interested media — in order to safely control the airspace. Any press drone will have to be piloted by a licensed UAV pilot, and probably file a flight plan with the FAA and disaster officials.
  4. Another possibility is that law-enforcement agencies will be the only ones allowed to fly drones over the worst disaster areas; after all, in a few years many fire and police departments will have considerable experience and expertise in flying drones for surveillance, fire-spotting, search-and-rescue missions, and criminal-search activities. Should they opt to ban press drones from a disaster area — which is a logical option in order to lessen the chance of drone accidents — then public agencies will need to provide the images and video to the media. Eventually, look for government agencies involved in disaster response to create APIs to support news media in sharing drone disaster images and video with the public.

For lesser disasters than Boulder’s recent floods where airspace restrictions haven’t been put in place — say, a house fire or a multi-car intersection accident — news organizations with drones and licensed UAV pilots will be able to enter the GPS coordinates and send a drone to take photos or video of the incident. A photo editor probably will be the one to fly the drone manually upon arrival at the scene, using his or her photojournalism skills to get the best shots by manipulating the camera on the drone and “clicking the shutter” remotely. … Career-enhancement tip for photojournalists: In a couple years, you’ll be a valuable newsroom asset if you have drone piloting skills and a UAV pilot’s license or certification.

I must mention privacy concerns, for some people will have them. Disaster-area homeowners might object to public distribution of images showing abandoned houses from a flood, for fear of looters being attracted. That’s a legitimate concern, but much precedent has been set by news organizations publishing, for example, maps of neighborhoods wiped out by wildfires, with non-damaged homes easily identified. There may be challenges as “drone journalism” takes hold, but expect the public’s right to access public information to win out.

Sensors and the “Internet of Things”

Today, you only have to turn on Google Maps’ Traffic feature in selected cities to view real-time traffic speed and traffic-jam locations. However, that’s done by Google tracking location of smartphones in cars in relation to cell-phone towers and calculating traffic density and speed.

In the future, the number of sensors in the environment (i.e., going beyond leveraging mobile phones as data-bearing sensors) will grow ever more quickly. More and more sensors, connected to the Internet, will feed real-time data about a variety of things: average traffic speed on roads; slipperiness index for roads receiving rain or snowfall; air pollution levels by location; etc. from government entities. Private businesses will get in on the act, with sensor cameras estimating the number of people in a restaurant, bar, or at the shopping mall, and even the current male/female customer ratio.

The Internet of Things is in the early stages of having buses and train cars in some cities capable of sending current position to a web server, utilized by phone apps to inform waiting passengers. Many apps are available to display the exact position of a passenger jet in flight. Further in the future, we should see more mobile “things” connected and displaying their real-time positions, and stationary things reporting on real-time conditions:

  • Firetrucks and ambulances. Useful for drivers to learn that an emergency vehicle is about to cross the intersection ahead; handy also for drivers to spot multiple responder vehicles and know to route around the trouble spot.
  • Available taxis.
  • Temporary road-blocked detour barriers.
  • Bridges that sense when a river has risen to or above the road bed.
  • Forest-fire detectors that measure smoke levels in the air.
  • River-flow sensors, to detect flooding early on; also useful for kayakers and other river-sports enthusiasts.
  • Gunfire acoustical sensors, to alert people to stay away from a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Athletes’ performance in real-time via worn-on-the-body sensors.

As more sensors enter our world, journalists will be able to access data from more and more of them, aiding not only in disaster coverage, but being used in all manner of news stories. But not all of them will be accessible, of course.

Improvements in social-media eyewitness reporting

As I mentioned earlier, many photos that I spotted from the Boulder-area flooding of damaged and destroyed houses lacked any identifying information. Many eyewitnesses will snap a disaster photo and post it to Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc., but forget or not bother to attach a caption explaining what’s going on or the location. Sometimes, a smartphone-toting eyewitness may have location-tracking turned on and physical coordinates of the image are attached when the photo is published to a social-media site. Unfortunately, today the percentage of such photos that include location data is low. According to social-media data vendor Gnip, based in Boulder, 15-26% of Instagram photos include location data; it’s much lower for photos posted to Twitter.

Watch for those numbers to go up, as smartphone photo apps default to including location and more people discover the value of location-tagging the photos they take. That goes for “regular” cameras, too; a growing number of modern high-end DSLRs have GPS photo-tagging built in, or a GPS dongle can be added to capture location data and add it to photos’ metadata.

As that trend plays out, photos and video from social-media sites will become increasingly useful for disaster news coverage. If all those location-less images that I spotted on Twitter and Instagram from the Boulder-area flood included location metadata, an incredibly useful and detailed interactive map of flooded towns could be created. (That can be done now, but we miss the majority of photos and videos posted at a disaster scene because they don’t include location data.) We’ll see social-media posts and images better utilized as location-tagging photography becomes ubiquitous.

News organizations can benefit from this future trend and utilize social-media content to provide much better and more detailed coverage of a major disaster. But, there’s also a threat from Twitter itself, one of the primary conduits of eyewitness images and reports during disasters. As Twitter executives have come to understand that their service provides an valuable news service to the public, the company easily could evolve to become (also) a news operation, utilizing its own tools and analysis to provide the fastest and most-detailed information of a breaking disaster. (Ditto for Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.) Don’t be surprised if in a few years Twitter’s news department grows into a sizable operation employing news editors to focus on the “Twitter stream” coming from a disaster location, using analysis tools and human editorial judgment to produce a spectacular coverage package based on eyewitness accounts and images. (Again, ditto for Instagram and Facebook.)

With just these trends (and I’m glossing over others), disaster-news coverage will improve profoundly in the years ahead. … As for the last week here in Boulder, I was struggling to find the information I wanted. I look forward to this situation becoming history.


Top photo by Steve Outing. Only railroad tracks through Boulder undermined by a re-routing of Boulder Creek as a result of flooding; the tracks previously sat atop solid ground with no water running underneath.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!