Google and The Storm

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The past 24 hours in the Philippines have been hell. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, roared across the Pacific nation yesterday, leaving a trail of soaked destruction. With wind gusts of up to 235 mph winds, 15.75 inches of rain, and 45 foot waves (!??!), it is no surprise that the initial projected death toll is rising above 1,200 already. BBC reports another 12 million people are displaced, searching for remnants of their washed away lives amongst the unrecognizable ruins of the places they once called home.

188228-typhoon-haiyan-fcd02, the philanthropic arm of Google, is doing its part for the relief efforts in two ways via Google Crisis Response. First, it set-up a webpage, called Person Finder, for those looking for loved-ones and/or checking in themselves to let others know that they are in fact alive. Google based the open-source platform off of the Katrina PeopleFinder Project in 2005, and it has been creating Person Finder pages for major disasters since.

The second initiative is Google Crisis Response’s “Typhoon Haiyan Crisis and Relief Map” that is now up and running and expanding. The crowdsourced map provides users with the location of evacuation centers, crisis areas, and relief drop zone areas. Other users have added the placement of hospitals, command-posts, police stations, etc.

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One of my initial thoughts was that it’s awfully unlikely that those affected by the storm are able to access and use this available information to their advantage — my guess is that WiFi and the likes aren’t up and running quite yet.  But, with further investigation, it appears that this map may be more geared toward users that can use the given information to offer help, rather than receive it. The map also shows landslide/flood prone zones, areas of concern/news and the path of the storm, among other things, which could be helpful to the myriad of aid organizations that are no-doubt gearing up to lend a helping hand.

In class we often discussed the validity of crowdsourced crisis maps, and how incorrect or misplaced information could hinder the reputation and/or usefulness of these ICTs. For some reason I trust Google….I know I shouldn’t, but, that’s another blogpost. Here’s my thinking: Google is a household-name, its free, easy, big, innovative, etc. and it employees some of the smartest people in the world. Thus, I feel that if any organization has the means and wherewithal to provide a valid crisis mapping service, it’s Google. More importantly (and probably more true), is that people will go to Google before they go to Ushahidi or some government/aid org. website to check a crisis map, or use something like Person Finder, simply because its Google–not necessarily because Google is “the standard,” but because its the most familier. I feel like this is a new and potentially dangerous phenomenon where people put a lot of faith in the validity and efforts of Google, Facebook and Apple (again, another blogpost). But, to put it another way: if Apple started producing crisis maps or had a Person Finder, wouldn’t that be the first one you checked?


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