How Google can Help during Times of Crisis



This article was originally published on the Humanitarian Coalition’s blog, here.


In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, chaos ensues. Communications infrastructure is often badly damaged or destroyed, complicating the frantic search to account for loved ones. Without knowing where a person is or how to reach them, they’re no longer just a phone call away.

Google Person Finder can be a lifeline during such situations. It helps speed up the search by acting as a forum for people affected by a disaster to provide details on missing persons.

The forums are sorted by crisis situation — Google Person Finder held records for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in the Philippines in 2013 and floods in Jammu and Kashmir, India, in 2014, and the recent earthquake in Nepal, to name a few.

Users indicate whether they’re looking for someone or have information about a person’s whereabouts. Searchers can input names, partial names or phone numbers.

For instance, a person may input the name “Juan.” Any previous postings related to that name are brought up, whether it be information about that person’s location, how to contact them or other reports of people searching for that person.

If nothing is there, the user can create a missing person profile for Juan, including such information as age, sex, address of missing person and photos.


In a testimonial by Rie Kawai and Aki Kohata, cousins who live in the U.S. and Japan, they describe trying to find information about their grandfather after the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. His phone was disconnected. Both put the information they had on Person Finder — and to their surprise, it worked: others responded with information and they were able to locate their grandfather.

“I thought that Person Finder was a helpless act of last resort … I was so relieved,” says Kawai.

Person Finder enables disaster-affected people and first responders to participate in a dynamic dialogue online about what’s happening on the ground, hopefully with the consequence of creating a better understanding of the situation.

Google’s Crisis Map helps fill other gaps in knowledge. Using satellite imagery and information from sources on the ground, it compiles wide-ranging data into an accessible map. Organizations that may have information — on aid locations, evacuation routes, etc. — can contribute and their data is mapped.

Services including Skybox and DigitalGlobe provide satellite images.

“We get data from a wide variety of sources, including NGOs (for example shelters from the American Red Cross), governments (e.g. weather data in the US),” explains a Google spokesperson. “When we feel an organization may have data that will be useful, we can and do approach them, but of course we’ll explore opportunities when approached as well.”


Fully Mobile

In summer 2013, Alberta, Canada was hit with hundreds of millimetres of rain over a span of 2-1/2 days, forcing 100,000 people from their homes and killing five. Nearly 1,000 kilometres of roads had to be closed due to damage.

Google Crisis Maps surged into action, creating a map — complete with satellite images — indicating road conditions, emergency alerts and locations of maintenance crews and community support centres, among other information.

A main evolution in Google’s crisis tools over time has been to make them fully functional on mobile devices.

While connectivity can be a problem when infrastructure is damaged, Google assures these networks are “surprisingly resilient.” Mobile networks may return before power.

Another potential challenge is awareness: How can people benefit from a tool if they don’t know it exists? Google seeks to diminish this by allowing their maps to be directly embedded in organizations’ websites. While someone may not know to look for Google Crisis Maps, they may be familiar with the Red Cross, for instance, which could feature Google’s maps.

The maps can also be easily shared by anyone accessing them. A user can take a snapshot of the view of the map they have — with particular layers of information highlighted — and send that to others.

Google Person Finder and Crisis Maps are part of a larger set of tools in Google’s Crisis Response. To learn about other available technologies, click here, or find them on Twitter or Facebook.




Lindsay Purchase

Lindsay Purchase

Lindsay Purchase is a journalist and lover of all things international living in Toronto, Canada.

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