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Mobile Traffic To San Diego Websites Exploded During Wildfires

Aired 5/19/14 on KPBS News.

Many, many more people used smartphones and other mobile devices to get information and updates during last week's fires.

When the Witch Creek fire and four others burned 368,000 acres of San Diego County in October 2007, the iPhone was only four months old.

Clearly, people got their news about last week's fires in different ways. Many, many more people used smartphones and other mobile devices to get information and updates.

Tammy Carpowich, director of interactive strategy at KPBS, said 500,000 people visited the KPBS website Tuesday through Thursday last week. And almost half of them did it with a phone or tablet.

She said KPBS's normal traffic is about 75,000 for a three-day period, with 35 percent on mobile and tablet.

Carpowich said when her team noticed the trend, they adapted the map of wildfires on KPBS's website.

"More people were coming to the site via mobile, and so everything that we built and everything that we did was with those people in mind," she said. "If we saw something wasn't working on a mobile phone, we changed it quickly to make sure we were serving those people."

Other news agencies reported higher traffic as well, although Sean Monzet, director of integrated media at NBC San Diego, said their traffic switched from being majority mobile to majority desktop.

"That's probably because the big news was coming down during the day while people were at work," he said.

Monzet said that on Wednesday through Thursday last week, the NBC San Diego website's page views were 16 times their 2014 daily average, and video use on their website, including live streaming, was 26 times their 2014 daily average.

But he said while the station's website traffic is usually 60 percent mobile and 40 percent desktop, last Tuesday through Thursday it was 40 percent mobile and 60 percent desktop.

Public agencies like Cal Fire also have gone more mobile since the 2007 fires, Carpowich said.

"The fires in 2007 was the first time we started using Twitter as a news distribution channel, and it's just exploded since then," she said. "So we use Twitter a lot to get the news out. What's a lot different is that we're using Twitter to gather our information, too. So Cal Fire and the public service agencies have been sending their information out that way."

But public agencies used social media and mobile updates to varying levels of success last week. While Cal Fire successfully sent out its updates via Twitter, San Diego County's Emergency Services app accidentally sent an alert that read "fire in your pants," and posted the wrong number of homes evacuated during the Bernardo Fire.

Mike Workman, a spokesman for San Diego County, said the "fire in your pants" alert was inserted by someone outside the county's government into a cloud-based system the county was using to create the evacuation map.

"Lesson learned, we won't create in the cloud anymore, even if it makes us faster," Workman said. He said the county was investigating who typed in the message.

Workman also said the county's website should have said contacts, meaning calls or emails, not homes or residences in its alert. He said 22,000 contacts were made due to the Bernardo Fire.

This story has been updated with information from Mike Workman, a spokesman for San Diego County.

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