Hurricane Harvey through the Eyes of the Internet

Caitlin Dawson | September 6, 2017

ISI’s John Heidemann tracks internet outages as they hit Southeast Texas

Photo credit: Istock

John Heidemann of the USC Information Sciences Institute and a research professor in the department of computer science  is mapping the destructive impact of Hurricane Harvey through the eyes of the internet – by measuring the size and location of internet outages as the storm hit southeast Texas last week.

These observations can provide key details about the geographic scope and scale of the damage caused by Harvey.

“We observed the results of the hurricane on internet edge networks, which reflect people’s homes and businesses losing utilities and power,” says Heidemann, who also mapped Hurricane Sandy internet outages in 2012.

“We can use this data to determine reasonably quickly which areas have problems and infer how disasters affect real people.”

In addition to measuring the impact of natural disasters, Heidemann hopes quantitative measurements of storm damage could help first responders identify affected areas, particularly in neighborhoods that have lost access to communications services or power. These measurements could also provide information about the speed of service restoration.

“In the next year, we hope to have near real-time reporting that can provide information for disaster response teams to understand the scope of the problem within an hour of people losing internet connectivity,” says Heidemann.

“The ability to watch over a large area at internet speed would be a very powerful way to understand the extent of the issue and calibrate a disaster relief response.”

Heidemann also created an animated map to simulate the effects of Hurricane Harvey on internet edge networks.

Key findings:

  • Landfall was followed by widespread internet outages in the Corpus Christi area, with 40 percent or more home networks in some areas dropping off the internet.
  • Over the following days, network outages grew in the Houston area, with many networks dropping off the internet. However, the fraction of networks lost in Houstonwas much smaller than in the Corpus Christi area.