It’s been a crazy week.
On Tuesday, we saw a huge increase in traffic on Google Maps. The traffic spike was so large that our servers thought they were being DoS attacked. It turned out that the additional traffic was due to hundreds of thousands of people constantly refreshing maps about the terrible wildfires in Southern California. Several news outlets and individuals had used the My Maps feature to create maps that tracked the spread of the fire and included information on evacuation alerts and evacuation center locations. (For those of you who haven’t been reading US news, these wildfires scorched 500,000 acres of land and caused 1,000,000 people to be evacuated from their homes)
I counted at least 15 fire-related maps, but the most popular one was the San Diego Fire Map, which was created by a small broadcasting station called KPBS. KPBS is a pretty small operation, but they did a truly amazing job of covering the fires, using both Google Maps and Twitter to get the word out. They worked round the clock to update their maps as often as every 5 minutes and continued even after their radio station went off the air due to the fires. Those people deserve enormous kudos for all their hard work and dedication.
When we realized where all the traffic was coming from, we got in touch with the folks at KPBS. They gave us their list of feature requests and we scrambled to implement the things that could be done quickly. We added caching and more machines so that the maps would load faster and more reliably, increased the number of items that could be displayed on the map at a single time, and changed the info windows to display “Last updated X min ago” so people would know if the information was recent or not. There were also a few Googlers from the Irvine and Santa Monica offices who were on the ground coordinating with the KPBS folks. It was a pretty hectic couple of days. I also had to fly to Tokyo in the middle of all of this. I was at the San Francisco airport when we called KPBS and was in the plane on the tarmac calling & emailing people on my Blackberry until the very last second before the plane took off. When I touched down, I continued emailing on the train ride from Narita Airport to Tokyo and was so engrossed in my mail that I stupidly missed my stop and ended up in Yokohama, 30 minutes away from Tokyo. I kept working at the hotel and also had to do some press interviews in the wee hours of the morning. I was on the phone with NPR Morning Edition at 3:30am Tokyo time (you can listen to the segment here).
What’s truly amazing and surprising to me about all of this is that the most authoritative source of information on the wildfire was produced by a tiny broadcasting station like KPBS and that this information was disseminated online using consumer-facing tools like My Maps and Twitter. I would have expected a government agency or a large traditional media outlet like CNN to have been the primary source of fire maps, but a lot of them just linked to the KPBS map in their articles. In fact, Calfires.com (the official fire website maintained by the governor’s office) simply embedded the KPBS map on their homepage using Google Maps’ embed feature. According to the pageview counts we display on My Maps, all the fire-related maps got 3.5 million pageviews combined, 1.2 million of which were to the KPBS map. But the real number is actually much higher, because one of the side effects of hurriedly implementing caching was that we broke the pageview counter and have been underreporting the numbers by a lot.
This past week has made me really glad I work on a product like Google Maps, which can be used in so many different ways and can even help people in situations like this. Back when we started the My Maps project, I knew that people would use the product in innovative ways I couldn’t even imagine, but I never expected it to be used on this scale for a disaster of this magnitude.