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August 24, 2011

Internet Seismometer Off the Charts from Yesterday’s Quake

By: Dan Piech

Maybe we’re complete data geeks, but as we evacuated comScore’s headquarters in Reston, Virginia, a mere 72 miles from the epicenter of the largest earthquake to hit the region in 67 years, the first thing on our minds was wanting to understand the quake’s quantifiable impact on Internet usage.

Throughout the densely-populated and Internet-savvy east coast of the U.S., where the majority of the population has never experienced an earthquake of such magnitude, people flocked to their computers and mobile devices for breaking news of the event. Social media like Facebook and Twitter also played a key role in amplifying the news, which reverberated across the web. While this was happening, comScore’s servers were up and monitoring Internet usage volumes, second-by-second.

Upon re-entering the office following our evacuation, we immediately kicked off a number of scripts to begin aggregating the Internet usage data into usable insights. As we brainstormed, we came up with our newest comScore creation – the “Internet Seismometer” – which is an animated look at U.S. Internet usage by minute between the hours of 1:40pm and 3pm yesterday – for computer vs. mobile-based traffic:

The following timeline highlights what you just witnessed in that video, and the number of immediately-noticeable findings we culled from the data:

  • 1:40 – 1:51pm: Business as usual.
  • 1:51pm: There is a sudden and precipitous drop in computer traffic in the two regions closest to the epicenter at the time of the quake likely from individuals in office buildings being evacuated.
  • 1:51 – 2:00pm: Computer traffic stays low in regions where individuals are most acutely aware of the quake due to proximity but do not have computer access. Meanwhile, other regions have yet to receive word. Mobile traffic spikes during this period, however – increasing in direct relationship to distance from the epicenter: 62% increase for those within 100km, 35% for those within 100 and 500km, and only 7% for those greater than 500km. There is a slight decline in mobile traffic in regions less than close to the quake, prior to this jump.
  • 2:00 – 2:10pm: Computer traffic spikes back up as employees in local regions flock back into buildings deemed structurally sound and log on. As expected, computer traffic increases slower in regions further from the quake. Mobile traffic continues to rise across all regions. Peak traffic rates are observed for all devices: PC traffic is up to 22% higher than expected weekday mid afternoon volumes and Mobile phone is up to 28% higher.
  • 2:10 – 2:20pm: Mobile traffic declines, especially in regions less than 500km from the epicenter as individuals finish making their emergency calls to loved ones. PC traffic drops slightly but remains significantly high as traffic to social networking sites explodes.
  • 2:20 – 2:30pm: Mobile traffic levels off at rates 10% higher than pre-quake volumes. Computer traffic continues a slow decline.
  • 2:30 – 3:00pm: Computer and mobile traffic both decrease in all regions, with regions closer to the quake experiencing faster drops as they fall back towards being in-line with other regions. Traffic, on the whole, still remains significantly higher than pre-quake volumes.
  • 3:00 – 4:00pm: Computer and mobile traffic hold steady at increased levels, with regions closer to the quake having predictably higher usage.

So, what do these findings tell us about ourselves as members of an Internet-dependent culture? I think there are several key takeaways:

  • The Internet provides a means for us to experience a tangible connection to a greater whole. It is a platform whereby the collective effervescence of an event like this can spread like wildfire. And we love that – as demonstrated by how many of us logged on to spur those connections, even in regions far away from the reach of the quake.
  • The Internet can mobilize large masses of people unbelievably quickly. In this case, whether it was the thousands of CNN iReports, the tens of thousands of minutes of YouTube footage uploaded, or the hundreds of thousands of tweets, there was one thing in common: we all were talking about the same thing.
  • The Internet facilitates lightning-fast mass communication. Tweets from DC reached New York before the tremors did and within less than 20 minutes, Internet traffic had spiked on the West coast to its highest levels. Most people who were using the web because of this event were doing so within twenty minutes. That’s the time it took civilization to get an urgent message to the next town a mere century ago.
  • The Internet is for short attention spans. Less than an hour after the quake, Internet volumes were already substantially on their way back down to pre-quake levels. Volumes for today are as would be expected on an average day.
  • The Internet infrastructure is not easily taken away from us. The Internet has become a vital connection to both our social network as well as our universal consciousness. When we were evacuated from buildings, we just unconsciously switched to using our mobile devices to connect, uninterrupted.

None of these principles are new. We’ve seen other demonstrations of the Internet’s power recently with events such as the Libyan revolution, Osama Bin Laden’s death, and the Japanese crisis. Thankfully, this latest mass-event left substantially less damage in its wake, but what it did leave was definitive and quantifiable evidence within comScore's data of just how powerful and influential the Internet really is.

Tags: , Mobile, Social, Web Traffic