In times of crisis like the Haiti earthquake, news organizations collect and share information such as names of missing people. But with CNN, The Miami Herald, The New York Times and others all collecting similar information in the days after the quake, people may not find each other if they looking in the wrong places online.
A central place to track missing people would simplify searches and make reunions more likely. Google has created that centralized source, and news organizations are embedding it on their sites or, in some cases, providing data to it in ways invisible to readers.
While some news organizations were already interested in working with Google to share information, a formal call for their participation in the people finder project came Saturday from Christopher Csikszentmihalyi, director of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media. It circulated by e-mail and was published on David Pogue’s New York Times blog and, in part, on Wired’s Web site.
In the call to news organizations, Csikszentmihalyi acknowledged that “many newspapers have put precious resources into developing a people-finder system.” However, he explained, “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, and each site is a silo.”
“Sharing common data and making it all accessible is key, because if Jean Q. Publique enters a name of a missing loved one on one site, and another person says they have found that loved one on a different site, they will not connect,” Csikszentmihalyi told me by e-mail.
Others were thinking of a single, centralized site as well, including designer Tim Schwartz, who created Haitianquake.com, a registry for tracking missing persons.
“I realized immediately that in our Web 2.0 environment, with tons of social networking sites, that missing people information was going to go everywhere on the Internet, and it would be very hard to actually find people and get back to their loved ones if everything was scattered,” Schwartz said by e-mail. “So, my initial goal was to create a unified database that would be the one repository for missing people data, and other online applications could connect to it.”
“That first night we had a database of 6,000+ entries where people could post images and leave updates on people in the database. By the next afternoon I had coordinated efforts with the development community and Google had just started to move on ideas about family reunification,” he continued. “We coordinated our efforts with them and by Friday morning Google had the beginning of their application out with an embeddable widget to take in data.”
Over the weekend, the 22,000 entries collected at Haitianquake.com were moved to Google’s database, which Schwartz said was up to 30,000 records “and growing” as of early Sunday evening. (I have not received any figures from Google on the number of records in its system.)
Google’s missing people finder — available in English, French and Creole — was developed in under 36 hours by Google engineers “in consultation with the U.S. State Department,” according to details distributed by Jesse Friedman and forwarded to me by Prem Ramaswami, Google Product Manager.
The idea for such a tool surfaced in informal discussions in the technology community, said Andy Carvin, social media strategist for NPR.
“I was involved after the first day or so, participating in a discussion forum run by volunteers from CrisisCommons and Random Hacks of Kindness,” Carvin said in an e-mail interview.
“Though I’m not a techie and can’t really participate in the substance of the tool-building that’s taking place, I advocated that we all figure out a way to have these various missing persons lists talk to each other … So I advocated that they use a format developed after Katrina called the PeopleFinder Interchange Format (PFIF), which was created by volunteers to make it possible to process all of these various missing persons reports into a single format that could be passed along to the Red Cross.”
One of the originators of PFIF, Ka-Ping Yee, works in software engineering for Google’s philanthropic initiatives, according to his online resume, and “no doubt that influenced how they moved forward,” Carvin said.
Google’s database attempts to integrate missing persons information from all over the Internet and now includes data from The New York Times, which started sending its data Saturday when Jacqui Maher quickly cranked out a PFIF export.
The Google person finder now includes records from CNN, and The Miami Herald has embedded a widget for it on its Haiti Connect page. Google has also created an API that makes it easier for developers to exchange information with the database.
NPR is not yet using the Google people finder, but Carvin said it’s on his “to do” list.
“This tool will be THE application for missing people for this disaster and all disasters in the future as well,” Schwartz said. “I believe this can take over as the core application for missing people in the United States and abroad.”
Some news organizations may not embrace Google as the provider of such a ubiquitous information-sharing tool if it seems to them yet another way that the search company is encroaching on their territory. Tensions between some news organizations (such as News Corp.) and Google run high. In fact, while Google News links to thousands of stories about the earthquake, there are none provided directly by the Associated Press. The two sides are resolving contract issues, for which there may be a January 31 deadline.
But how important will business conflicts be when emergencies arise?
“Getting the scoop or branding is important,” said MIT’s Christopher Csikszentmihalyi, “but one would hope that anyone building a people finder was doing it as a public service.”