Gnip Co-founder Jud Valeski on His Flood Shots Seen Around the World
Gnip co-founder and chief technology officer Jud Valeski has a unique perspective, both professionally and now personally, on disasters like the 100-year flood that just devastated Colorado.
In his day job, Valeski helps oversee Boulder-based Gnip’s efforts to collect about 3 billion public social media activities every day. That includes every public Tweet and Tumblr post, and lots of Facebook, Google+, Instagram, and Flickr posts.
With the advent of social media, disasters now unfold online in real time, and Twitter has become the go-to source for updates. Emergency responders and government agencies also use social media, both to broadcast messages and to spot where people need help. Many rely on data compiled by Gnip.
Over the years Gnip has given Valeski some insights on how social media users, the press, and emergency agencies use social media during a disaster. Last week, Valeski saw first-hand how it all played out during a once-a-century natural disaster.
Valeski lives in Boulder, which gave him a much-too-close perspective on the flood that officials believe has killed at least eight people across Colorado and destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes. The storm dropped more than 15 inches of rain on Boulder in less than a week.
The devastation has been well documented over the past few days, with many of the most striking and alarming pictures of the deluge coming from amateur photographers like Valeski. His pictures of Boulder’s flooded downtown and the overflowing Boulder Creek were among the earliest photos taken from Boulder. (This map shows the location of the park where Valeski took the pictures.) During the worst of the flooding on Thursday and Friday, some of Valeski’s pictures made the jump from social media to news media like the Associated Press and ABC World News. Outlets as far away as London’s Daily Mail Online in the U.K. ran his photos.
The rain has abated, although more showers might be coming, and residents and officials are shifting their attention from rescue to recovery and clean up work. (Here’s a link that will lead you to several nonprofits aiding the recovery effort.)
Like countless people in Colorado, Valeski has spent the past few days checking in on friends, family, and employees. Now that the most dangerous period looks like it’s passed, I chatted with Valeski about his pictures and the growing use of social media for disaster rescue and relief.
Getting the shots
Valeski said he woke up around 4:30 a.m. Thursday morning and headed out to look for interesting scenes. He was looking for cool pictures in the early morning sunlight that he could add to his portfolio and share with friends. He ended up getting a head start on many journalists.
“That morning I went out thinking the light was going to be a little different…and I started walking the creek, looking for interesting vantage points.”
He headed to a bridge that crosses Boulder Creek, which normally runs quietly through the parks just south of Boulder’s downtown. By then, the creek had turned into a raging rapids that had swamped the park, including a bench that is normally a few yards away from the bank.
“My family and I live in downtown Boulder, we sit on that bench countless times every summer, and obviously it was in a lot of trouble,” Valeski said.
Valeski wanted the shot, and he experimented with his settings and managed to capture the speed of the current as well as any other photo taken that day. He posted it on Twitter and Instagram, and soon it was getting shared. News organizations began asking for permission to use it.
“I didn’t think much of it when I was taking it, other than it might be an interesting shot. There’s nothing quite like social media to bear out whether or not you did something interesting,” Valeski said.
The rains continued, washing away roads and neighborhoods in the mountains above Boulder. With limited access to those areas, most of the news came over pictures shared online. Eventually it became clear that the mountain towns were the hardest hit, and that Valeski’s pictures captured the flood before its peak.
Some of Valeski’s other photos from Thursday are included in this post. The pillar in one of the shots is a flood marker. When Valeski took the shot Thursday morning, the river had not yet risen to the marker. By the evening, the deluge had become a 100-year flood.
New responses to disaster
As the co-founder, former CEO, and now CTO of Gnip, Valeski has a broader perspective on social media in general and disaster response specifically. But it also comes with the territory, living in Colorado.
“Since Gnip has started, unfortunately we’ve had a few natural disasters right here at home, so we got to experience it all firsthand,” he said.
Boulder’s last brush with a major disaster was in the summer of 2010, when the Fourmile Canyon wildfire burned just west of the city. The fire caused $217 million in damage and at the time was the worst in state history.
Back then, social media had yet to shake the stigma of being frivolous, and emergency and government agencies were just realizing its potential. Studying data from social media “is just a given now,” Valeski said.
“Everyone feels a little more comfortable with creating and using the data. I’d say we as random citizens out there taking pictures and making posts, there’s kind of a rhythm that we’re in now. It’s just part of our psyche to capture and document,” Valeski said. “That was a relatively new thing a few years ago, now it’s just part of the process.”
“They use our service to collect social media about natural disasters in real time, and they do things like try to predict troubled areas. We have an army of citizens out there using social media to document things, you can see things arrive before ‘officials’ even can, so they watch for that,” he said.