When the Category 4 Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Wednesday, September 20th, the devastation to the island archipelago -- an unincorporated territory of the United States -- was catastrophic. According to reports, Hurricane Maria was the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly 80 years, resulting in numerous deaths, widespread property loss and a near total power outage. CNBC has reported that Hurricane Maria could end up causing massive insured losses, including from near complete business interruptions, with one insurer pegging the estimated liabilities between $15 billion to $30 billion and another putting the number even higher, from $40 billion to $85 billion.
At Skyhook, we operate and maintain a global database that contains the approximate geolocations of billions of access points and hundreds of millions of cell towers. These access point and cell tower locations serve as the underlying reference infrastructure for our Precision Location solution, which can deliver pinpoint accuracy for connected devices anywhere on the globe -- even when GNSS solutions are not available.
As a proxy for understanding the impact that Hurricane Maria had on Puerto Rico’s power grid and wireless internet infrastructure, we looked at Wi-Fi and cell tower signals that our system detected from various available data streams on the island in the four days leading up to the storm in order to understand mobile device activity both before the storm hit as well as during the arrival and duration of the storm.
What Does the Data Tell Us?
As you can see in the video below, the overall usage patterns detected by Skyhook’s services showed an increase in cell tower and Wi-Fi activity immediately prior to the storm, followed by a rapid collapse in activity within an hour of Maria making landfall near Yabucoa on the morning of September 20th. By the time the eye moved off of the island at 5:15pm at the top left of the island that day, as the video shows, San Juan was the only remaining connected area on the entire island.
The data shown on the map is a collection of Skyhook's multiple data streams, including Wi-Fi access point activity, cell tower activity, and mobile phone location data. By utilizing multiple different data streams and sources, Skyhook is able to leverage massive amounts of data to identify patterns in outages and activity (or lack thereof) at certain physical locations such as gas stations, supermarkets and retailers.
The benefit of this type of analysis is that this large data stream can be filtered to expose particular parts of infrastructure and the economy, such as:
- Which stores open first after the storm (i.e. Walmart vs Sears)
- Which neighborhoods have gotten their broadband service back since the storm
- Whether or not cell service is being restored outside of urban areas
While similar data analysis is beneficial in the commercial arena, in this particular instance measuring Wi-Fi and cell activity can provide critical insights into the current state of the wireless infrastructure and power grid in Puerto Rico. Location-based insights such as these can help authorities, relief organizations and others to better plan, target and distribute assistance to the areas most impacted by Hurricane Maria. In the coming weeks, as power hopefully returns to the island, Skyhook will continue to monitor the activity levels of the wireless infrastructure in Puerto Rico and provide updates as to what regions (and economic areas) of the island are making progress in restoring power and connectivity, and what work remains to be done.