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Posted on Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 1 p.m.

Mapping Wednesday night's power outage in Ann Arbor

By Edward Vielmetti

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Reader contributions helped make this map of the power outage in Ann Arbor on December 9, 2009. (Google Maps)

When the power goes out, no one has a complete idea of where all of the problems are - there's always a bit of confusion in the world where the lights are out. Now that almost all of the lights are back on, there's time to write this story up.

This map was put together the night of December 9, 2009 after the power outage that hit the west side of Ann Arbor; here's how I did it. Click through to view the full original map.


The first piece of doing a collaborative map is finding a good base map to work within. Google Maps is the best I've seen so far, though not the only way to do it; with that system you set up a map and then mark it as shared so that anyone can collaborate. Google has more directions and a short tutorial to help you get started.

Before you send this out to the world, you should do your homework. I went through the 30 or so comments that had come in on our first story and put pins and lines on the map to get a first step at what the outages look like. From the very start I used a set of color coding conventions - red for out, green for on - so that you could look at things and see at a glance what the status was. It's always easiest for people to add to something that looks like it's already real, even if it's obviously not complete.

After the first dozen placemarks were put in, I announced the map on a couple of sources - links on the pages where the most comments were coming in, links posted to Twitter and Facebook, and an email to one of the lists I run. To make it easier to look at the link I created a short URL using the service, which takes the very long URL that comes from Google Maps and makes it short enough to read in an environment like Twitter where you only have a few characters of text to use.


Once the word gets out, the fun begins. Because it's an open collaboration map, anyone can update things, and they don't necessarily have to share the same structure that you do. I started with two colors, but quickly a third color emerged (orange) to mark locations where power was half-on, half out. And, because the map reflects a situation that changes, collaborators can updated things that change, like showing that power was out at a location but that now its back on.

By morning, all but a few hundred people in the affected area had their power restored, so I've frozen the map.

When things are much worse

This has been done on a much larger scale before, during natural disasters - generally the test has been hurricanes, where maps of evacuation routes and flooding and other things you would need to know when tracking the progress of a moving storm can be helpful. The Hurricane Wiki springs into action for any major storm, and this interview with NPR correspondent Andy Carvin goes into some good detail about using maps as a part of an online disaster response.

On the move

Another piece that's worth noting is that figuring out how to update the site based on information coming in from mobile phones is really important. Twitter does the best work here, since it can work on even the simplest phone through SMS; it lets people send in details that someone better networked can update.

We have had some reports of problems viewing the site on mobile devices, so there's some details we need to look at.

Facebook didn't help so much on this event, in part because it didn't last long enough and wasn't widely geographically distributed enough to take advantage of the network effects that you get from that.

Edward Vielmetti reads the comments that people write in to and tries, when appropriate, to turn them back into news. You can reach him by commenting on this article, by email to, or by telephone at 734-330-2465.


Stephen Lange Ranzini

Sat, Dec 12, 2009 : 2:33 p.m.

@bereasonable, after much research and planning, University Bank is installing this month a back-up generator fired by natural gas (I wrote the first check Thursday). When the regional or local power goes down, natural gas lines are still flowing, since the natural gas pipelines use natural gas to create the power to move the natural gas through the pipelines. I'm tired of the many blackouts we've had and the unreliable nature of the local power grid and resent the fact that we have to spend the money to have reliable power. Hopefully we can recoup some of the cost if people like you and local businesses move their bank accounts to a local bank that will have power regardless of what happens regionally.


Sat, Dec 12, 2009 : 4:56 a.m.

I also got news about the power outage in downtown Ypsilanti. Which led me to believe that the problem was more widespread from wind damage to power lines than just transformers blowing. Still, with cellphones, we were able to distribute the information amongst ourselves quicker than would have been possible in the past. That is what amazes me. Within minutes of hearing about it, we all called our friends and found out the extent of the outage and who was affected and we also had a generator to lend to our friends who may have needed it. The level of communication was awesome! The speed with which it was done, was even more awesome. One reason I love living here.


Sat, Dec 12, 2009 : 4:50 a.m.

i hate to tell you, but I ascertained the limits of the outage a bit more accurately than you did with a few phone calls to and from many of my friends. I found that the outage was happening west of Revena, (the east side of Revena still having lights on, and south & west as far as Scio-church & Wagner, according to a friend of mine who was on the road and that Stadium as well as Maple was hard to navigate since the lights went out. I had friends by Arbordale and on the West side of Stadium without power, those who told me I94 was closed due to downed power lines as well as others who had seen the substations blow. Within minutes, we had let our community know what had gone down. In minutes we seemed to have more info than your map, after the fact, seems to provide.

Rob MI

Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 9:48 p.m.

@Edward Vielmetti: I live in the neighborhood just west of Big Pine where Cary Dr., etc. are. Other than a series of brief flickers last night around 5 PM, our power has remained on and I believe is on throughout the sub. Our fortunate situation this time around was not the same in early October's windstorm, when around 50 of the 200 homes in the sub (Ford Lake Village) were without power and told not to expect power to return until Saturday (3 days away). It did come back within 24 hours despite the drastic estimate DTE provided.

Art Vandelay

Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 4 p.m.

Great, innovative way to use your site! Hopefully you can improve on it and we'll know to look to for stuff like this in the future.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 3:54 p.m.

did I miss something because I don't have a legend to the map. The map is great but I don't know why some things are green (or other colors).

dading dont delete me bro

Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 3:23 p.m.

@mr.vielmetti, i don't know if the other subs are out. i was also JUST told the area of mansfield and michigan ave JUST lost power momentarily. comcast grid out? sorry, not a big loss there. i'm not a fan of them lately.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 3:20 p.m.

I hope those people who don't want the trees cut down in Pittsfield are out of power. Hope they have to wait longer than the rest

Theresa Bassett

Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 2:50 p.m.

And did anyone mention that comcast was also out to a large area making TV/internet/phone obsolete? I read the article quickly, not carefully.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 2:05 p.m.

Just my take. This was a really great idea to display it like this. Businesses that could stay open (via generator power) could accommodate the needs of those people that required it. Nice work!


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 1:36 p.m.

Knight's Restaurant???

dading dont delete me bro

Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 1:22 p.m.

what's the martini doing on dexter ave? there's power out in ypsilanti township too. particularly on big pine drive (huron river drive towards ford lake park) told probably not until this weekend to be restored...