Searching for help

We’ve all been stunned by recent images from Haiti. Official numbers aren’t yet available but by current estimates the earthquake that struck last week may have instantly ended 100,000 lives with thousands more at dire risk from injury, disease and hunger.

Beyond hoping for the best, many of us have helped in small but meaningful ways, sending water and medical supplies or making direct donations to relief efforts. Chris Csikszentmihalyi, director of the M.I.T. Center for Future Civic Media recognized the need for people to connect with loved ones in Haiti and applauded news organizations for creating sites to assist people in finding each other. But he also explained in an email to the media that “this excellent idea has been undermined by its success: within 24 hours, it became clear that there were too many places where people were putting information; each site became a silo.”

Social media is a powerful tool for connecting people but only if both people are using the same channel. A volunteer initiative by Google engineers answered Csikszentmihalyi’s call. In 36 hours Google’s missing people finder was created and deployed. The Google widget is embeddable in a blog or website and includes database information from CNN, the New York Times and other news organizations as well as the U. S. State Department. The interface is easy to use, simply click on one of two situational links: “I’m looking for someone”, or “I have information about someone”, and it works in three languages: English, French and Creole. Google even provides an interface to make it easier for developers to upload/download information with the database.

Google’s crisis response page also gathers many resources into one place, providing, among other things, a tool enabling direct donations to UNICEF and CARE for Haitian relief as well as links to many other organizations accepting donations of money and supplies, instructions on how to use text messaging to make monetary donations, resource updates, local media websites and updates through the US State Department. In addition Google Earth provides imagery that anecdotally has been valuable in mapping areas where landmarks have been obliterated and for organizing on-the-ground rescue efforts.

Searching and realizing immediate results is commonplace, unremarkable. Using something familiar in an unexpected context, those same tools and processes are now saving lives and reconnecting frightened families.


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