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The Napa Quake’s Impact on Regional Internet Usage: Going Mobile in a Crisis

A magnitude 6.0 earthquake struck Northern California at 3:20:44 AM Pacific time, Sunday, August 24th. Though damage assessment and recovery will take time, Quantcast’s extensive reach on web, mobile, and mobile app content enables us to provide some initial insight into how the region’s population responded to the early morning earthquake. While the epicenter and most of the significant damage was near Napa and Sonoma, the earthquake was felt throughout the Bay Area. When looking at browsing activity by city in the area around the earthquake epicenter, some very clear behaviors emerged.

As might be expected, when the quake hit, those closest to the epicenter stopped their browsing and headed for safety. Online activity in both Napa and Sonoma saw a significant dropoff in the minutes during and after the earthquake. Even some 45-50 miles away in the Bay Area cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, the initial response was to pause and take stock of what was occurring.

While the overall browsing slowdown in the areas closest to the epicenter, Napa and Sonoma, continued, browsing activity in the Bay Area increased as people went online to find out more about what they had just felt.

Looking deeper into the data, we can see an interesting pattern emerge in the difference between browsing trends between mobile and desktop sources. While desktop use remained down for an extended period, mobile browsing took off, particularly in the major Bay Area cities. Mobile browsing also surged in both Napa and Sonoma while desktop browsing remained down in those locations.

The faster growth in mobile browsing is likely driven by three factors:

  1. People living in Napa and Sonoma likely brought their mobile phones with them as they sought shelter during the earthquake, and then quickly began looking for alerts and news to help them assess the seriousness of the situation.
  2. Power outages that were caused throughout Napa and Sonoma likely rendered desktops effectively useless.
  3. Those living in the Bay Area, where the quake was strong enough to wake them but not powerful enough to inflict major damage, reached to the phones most now keep next to their bed to figure out what was going on.

The increase in mobile activity was not a mere blip. Even some 15 minutes after the earthquake stopped, mobile browsing in Sonoma and Napa was 200-600% higher than immediately before the quake, while desktop browsing 60-80% lower. The bulk of those who rose to check their phones in the Bay Area didn’t suddenly switchover to desktops either. Looking just at Berkeley, one of the closest Bay Area cities to the epicenter, mobile browsing remained up more than 600%, while desktop usage was up only a little more than 150%.

While most have come to accept that the mobile web is the dominant force today, our data underscores the critical importance mobile plays in planning for disaster and recovery efforts. Local, state, national and private emergency and recovery organizations should continue to focus on using the new avenues provided by our ubiquitous mobile devices to alert and inform individuals during times of crisis. If today proves anything, it’s that people won’t have to be told to turn to their phones and tablets for information, they’re already doing so.

Posted by Michael Kamprath, Vice President of Engineering, Crispin Flowerday, Director of Engineering, and Brandon Borrman, Head of Communications