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PDXboom: The Power of Crowdsourcing or Good Police Work?

March 29, 2010

Last night, shortly after 8:00 PM people all over the east side of Portland, Oregon reported hearing an explosion. About 50 calls reporting the blast came into 911. Police and fire units responded to the reports, but found nothing.

That didn’t stop people from speculating. Within minutes, users of the microblogging service Twitter had created the hashtag #pdxboom to share reports and monitor developments and more than 20 people had checked into the event on Foursquare. Less than 30 minutes after the first report, an enterprising open source entrepreneur created a mashup on Google Maps and began inviting contributions through social media sites.

Over the next several hours, hundreds of reports poured in and were logged on the map. The reports were color-coded to reflect the strength of the blast and the completeness or certainty of the information provided.

Traditional media took an interest in the incident too. Calls were placed to the local Air National Guard base. The wing commander there confirmed that no flying or military operations were occurring at the time that could have generated a sonic boom. He also confirmed that NORAD had no reports of space debris, meteorites or supersonic flights in the area. Similarly, USGS seismographs were quiescent. (The local seismograph at Portland State University‘s geology department did, however, display a minor blip shortly after 8:04 PM.) And the National Weather Service reported no lightning or thunderclaps in the area at the time.

What then caused the colossal boom? Speculation ran the gamut from the serious (an earthquake boom) to the nonsensical (dueling unicorn spirits or a house falling on a witch), but no one seemed to know.

About 1:00 PM today, Portland Police confirmed that investigators had located the source of the loud noise along the banks of the Willamette River near downtown Portland. A bomb squad supervisor said a partially buried PVC pipe bomb detonated in the bank had produced the noise. Its location along the river bank and at the base of the city’s West Hills amplifying its effects and making it all the more audible eastward.

Police indicated that the map had indeed proved helpful, but a number of other tips helped them locate the site. A smaller explosion a little less than two weeks earlier had already piqued their interest, and the descriptions of 911 callers who witnessed the flash and a plume of smoke after the blast made it possible for them to pinpoint the blast site.

It would be easy to assume that the social media hubbub played a significant role in solving the mystery. Indeed, that’s exactly what many participants have already begun reporting. But the furore on the social media sites, and Twitter in particular, was more smoke than fire and produced more heat than light.

The best and most credible information, that which proved most helpful in identifying the location of the blast came not from Twitter but 911. If Police manage to identify who built and activated this device, I am willing to bet that they will uncover this crucial evidence the old-fashioned way: good forensics and hard-nosed police work.

Does this assessment mean I do not see value in social media? Far from it. That said, I do not over-estimate its utility either.

Social media provided a means for people to contextualize their experience of this strange event in the absence of official information. For many of them, the opportunity to share the experience with others online and in real-time gave it meaning that it would otherwise have lacked. And in some instances, that meaning was best expressed by the unofficial Portland city motto: Keep Portland weird!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2010 9:57 am

    Despite being involved in the map project, I agree that the actual police work was key. But I do think it’s interesting that the perceived take-away for a lot of people was that “social media works!”–I’m curious whether seeing a project like this as successful means folks will be more likely to help with data gathering the next time something happens. Increased participation is a good thing.

  2. April 26, 2010 12:50 am

    Saturday March 06 2010, a ka-thunka in nw portland
    i was sitting inside anna banana’s coffeeshop
    at 1214 Northwest 21st Avenue and herd
    a “thun-ka” thats a muffled boom with
    2 shock waves about a quarter second apart

    to me it it sounded like a refridgerator fell down
    10 feet north west of me but that would put it
    in the wall and be impossible , but
    it felt like it shoved the building east a little

    i went out side to the intersection of NW 21st
    & northrup and it was filled with people
    looking for the source of the boom ,
    i went around the neighborhood on my bike
    and smelled burnt gunpouder strongly at NW 22nd & northrup

    i sent emails to all of the news agencys but

    Colin Seiler News Producer @ KATU sdaid
    Multnomah County Dispatch says there was
    some sort of backyard fire, but
    they’ve heard nothing about an explosion

    Adele Steiger of koin said
    I saw a couple of people tweeting about this,
    when I made calls to police/fire and PGE…
    they said they couldn’t find anything and didn’t
    know what it was either.
    I have no doubt it happened,
    but it seems a mystery at this time.
    Sorry, I couldn’t be of any help.

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