Search Engines and Social Media Step Up for Disasters

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Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 10.02.57 AMNew Orleans     It’s hard to find any good news in disasters.  The Nepal earthquake has already counted more than 4000 deaths with countless homeless and crises abounding will leave that country in recovery for years, particularly in Katmandu.  India and Chinese rescue teams were first on the scene and many are joining, though slowly it seems.

I wrote a book several years ago called the Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster, so even ten years on from Hurricane Katrina, I continue to look for lessons that we have learned that make a difference.  Parsing the press releases from recovery specialists and Silicon Valley is always a tricky business where one hopes for the best, but both search engines and social media outfits may be trying to fill a vital need that we recognized early after Katrina:  finding people and establishing who is safe and who might be missing.   We found many of our members by mass texting to cell phones then, but there had to be a better way.

Before I even realized that there had been an earthquake in Nepal, I got a Facebook message on my phone on April 25th at 1248 PM that Ruchi Srivastava was safe in Nepal.  I didn’t know Ruchi well.  She had connected to me through Kanchan Shinha, a former program officer with Oxfam Great Britain in India and country director for Oxfam GB in Tanzania, who I knew much better.  Nonetheless, I liked knowing she was safe.  I wasn’t sure what was going on, though it became clearer quickly once I realized a devastating earthquake had hit Nepal.

It turned out that with Facebook’s billion plus users globally they have created an application called “Safety Check” that allows people to let their friends know that they are safe.  Nothing more, but that’s often enough.  I had asked my daughter about a college roommate of hers who worked in Nepal, but she was not in-country at the time.  According to Facebook “…millions of users in Nepal, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh had been marked as safe, and their status had been relayed to tens of millions of people….”  In places like Indonesia where Facebook is almost ubiquitous, this could be a lifesaver in the event of another tsunami.
According to The New York Times as well, Google has an application that allows people to search for friends and loved ones as well as allowing people on the scene to input their data.

Google’s Person Finder  was tracking about 6,300 records… Anyone can enter a person’s name, biographical information and photograph into Google’s database. You can specify whether you are that person, are seeking information about that person or have reason to believe the person is either alive or missing. Google does not review or verify the data.

It turns out that a small contribution and lesson learned from Katrina in 2005 has driven this bit of actually not “doing evil” and actually doing good.

Google’s tool can also accept data from other registries. The common format used, called PFIF , was established by a group of volunteers after Hurricane Katrina  in 2005, according to Google. After that disaster, multiple lists of missing people sometimes created confusion, pointing to a need for a central database.  The tool was first introduced in 2010 after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and it was used again the next year after the major earthquake in Japan.