Geeks want to help too.

One of the things I saw about the relief efforts for Katrina is the number and diversity of missing persons sites. Geeks want to help too.

One of the problems that was obvious to the geeks was that there were data about missing people that needed to be shared, and so the geeks pitched in and set up databases to share that information. The Red Cross Family News Network, a database from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one from MSNBC, one from CNN, and lots more.

So now if you are looking for someone, you need to search a bunch of websites to find them and you’re never quite sure if there’s one more site that you missed that says the person you’re looking for is OK. Tyranny of choice indeed.

By trying to solve one problem, the geeks caused another one. It’s understandable. Geeks want to help too and this is how some knew how to do it.

Telling people “leave it to the experts” doesn’t generally work, and maybe that’s a good thing. The solution needs to allow people to pitch in and help, while at the same time getting the best information out.

Before the next emergency, the Red Cross should create web services that allow anyone to tie into the Red Cross’s search facility. This allows people to pitch in and help, to do smart things that make the search more useful, while at the same time getting the information out to everyone who needs it.

There are a few ways to do it, such as allowing sites to query the Red Cross for searches (to allow mashups like missing people on Google Maps or SMS) or aggregating searches like A9 OpenSearch. Those aren’t mutually exclusive and there are other things they can do too. The Red Cross’s geeks should know what’s possible with their setup so I won’t pretend to give them specific advice, just ask that they help the internet community to help them.

Yahoo!, to their credit, used their search technology to provide a search interface to many of the missing persons databases. That’s a good example of what I want to see.

I’m not saying that this is a major victory over hurricanes or anything. Now is not the time to come up with a web services strategy. People in the Astrodome do not need Friendster or blogs or web services; they need water, food and hygienic conditions. Once it’s time to start preparing for the next emergency, that’s when it’s time to start working on this.

Oh, and please donate to the Red Cross. Please.

Update: The AP talks about this exact same problem. (Thanks Ed!)

Also, Jeff Jarvis discusses this same problem and some solutions on BuzzMachine and the NPR program On The Media for Sept 9, 2005.

Also also, if you follow the “do not need Friendster” link above, you get to a blog post that I had assumed was just some well-intentioned geek far removed from the action. Instead, it’s actually a recommendation from someone who was in the Astrodome. More in this comment.

One thought on “Geeks want to help too.

  1. From the dome, well, i just left, but basically fresh from it: yahoo did make a tool that sucks in and makes searchable all the ICRC data, and data from many other sources. The computer center and access to information was and is important. After food, water, and hygiene, people needed information, which was in very short supply. (Food, clothing, shelter, and water, and medical care, all were there in force. Hygiene was rocky, but not truly awful.) You know what/ I never saw so much as a newspaper in that place all last week. I don’t think a single one. Just so you know that residents of the dome were using the technology… a lot of them… right there on the ground, desperately.
    I believe the technology & information divide is contributing badly to widening class divisions in this country and globally. For example if people had internet addresses they would have been out of the dome even more quickly. Because they wouldn’t have lost contact with family, friends, community.
    There is another issue to be aware of that confuses a lot of people, even/especially people in the Red Cross, which is that they have their public database, but also their very confidential one. So, quite a lot of residents in the dome thought they were “registered”, but that was the RC intake, which they consider confidential, and which we did not have access to. At first I was angry with this, but now I get it that they are international, there are political refugee issues, there are medical privacy issues, domestic violence especially (which we did see happen), child custody, etc. So when someone relatively high up in the RC told me “even the fact that a person is here in the dome or came here is confidential information” I laughed bitterly and disagreed, but now I am not so sure of that. Or, at least I understand where they’re coming from. IMHO still the benefit outweighs the risk to some. Or included in intake, put a “keep this private, i do not want to be found” flag. I share your belief the RC tech people know a lot, but they do need to listen to and use the geeks who are not in their command structure. I think they are doing that right now and working hard…. it is not smooth or perfect but it is happening.
    blah blah blah! Sorry for the overcomment, I’m a little bit tweaked and this is the first trackback i followed.
    – Liz

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