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Digital in the modern day disaster zone

27th April 2015

We’ll all have been aware over the weekend of the terrible loss of life caused by the earthquake in Nepal that has affected so much of the country. The news headlines that have really struck me are that on Mount Everest which is a hundred miles away from the epicentre of the earthquake, a series of devastating avalanches which tore through base camp and were captured on video (available via the BBC news website here) meaning that over 200 climbers so far have been rescued from the moutain. While watching the news break gradually as more information was available I was particularly interested in an online tool that Sky News featured which Google have developed to find people in a crisis. This google.org project is called Google Person finder and was built by Google to help improve the ability for friends and family to check that their loved ones are safe and well after a natural or humanitarian disaster.

The tool was inspired by a variety of websites that were set up in America in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in 2005. The person finder works by allowing people to upload data in a common format to the database which people can then search for their loved ones. You can also upload a status for a person such as ‘alive and well’ or ‘missing’ to help the collaborative effort to find people. You can search the database for the Nepalese earthquake here or you can search through SMS, details also available via this link you can also read the FAQ section of the Person Finder tool here.

Over the weekend my parents reminded me that we’d once met a man from Nepal who works as a Peacemaker and Doctor all over the world. One of our other relatives had much better contact with him but none of us had heard anything since the earthquake had struck despite emailing and doing our best to get in touch. Having seen the Sky News report we tried using Google people tracker to no avail. I think this was partly because our friend shares his first and second name with the Nepalese Prime Minister which made it difficult to distinguish him from other entries. However, we later had a brainwave and searched for him on Facebook. We found his account and sure enough he had updated his status twice since the earthquake had struck letting people know that himself and his friends and family were all alive and well so far. We then had a look on Twitter and repeated the search out of interest and found another social media account which we knew was his but didn’t have any updates.

It was great that we were able to find Sushil through social media and discover that he was okay, we private messaged him to wish him and his friends and family well in this difficult time. I couldn’t help thinking though that Google people seems a much better way of posting and receiving updates about missing people in disaster zones and perhaps now that it has hit the mainstream media it will become a more popular technology used in these enevitable natural disasters.

One example of a disaster where this could have worked really well is the Malaysian tsunami in which so many people lost and were separated from friends and family. They had the devastating task of working their way from shelter to shelter desperately searching for a loved one. Although an obvious barrier to this is connectivity, Google have ensured that you are also able to search by SMS so an internet connection is not essential.

If you have any thoughts or experiences you’d like to share about the use of digital in disaster zones or you’d like to find out more about using Google people finder, get in touch via social media, email ([email protected]) or give us a call in the office on 0845 094 6108.