Have you ever wondered how Google processes and uses your data? There are several ways the Internet giant do that: targeted advertisements, personalized search engine results and Google Analytics reporting. In times of natural disasters, another use for your data comes into play:
It helps you find missing persons.
How it works
Enter Google Person Finder – a Google project that aims to provide information on an individual’s status and location in times of natural disasters. How does it work? When a disaster happens, thousands of people are affected. Google will set up a special Person Finder page specifically for that disaster.
On the data gathering side, a team will compile a list of persons missing in the disaster, which will then be uploaded onto the Person Finder website. The data is gathered through Google’s own database. If you have a Google account, the company already knows where you are living.
Similarly, the public can also input information to the platform about a missing person if they know someone who might be missing. You can also upload your own data yourself. How do people get information through Person Finder? First, you log on to the Person Finder page and type the name of the person missing. Google will then present all the persons with the same name in the database.
Written in Python and hosted on Google’s own app engine, its roots comes from Prem Ramaswani, a product engineer at Google, who, together with Ka-Ping Yee, another Google Engineer, gathered and build a team of volunteers to build a database of missing persons during the 2010 Haiti Earthquake.
In collaboration with the US State Department, the first Person Finder app went live on January 15, 2010 in three languages – French, Haitian Creole, and English. Previous efforts similar to the Person Finder App was built before by various media companies, such as the New York Times and CNN. However, they did not work out.
The main problem with these past efforts is that, information are scattered. A missing person’s database can be found either on the Times’ data or in CNN, but not both. For example, a person may find out that his relative is missing on CNN’s database, but when looking at the New York Times’ version, he may realize that the relative is alive and has already given his location.
This is where Google can solve the problem. Google is in the best position to aggregate all these information as it is the default search engine for most Internet users.
What gives Google the unique position to make Person Finder work is this: You do not need to even hit the search button or type something on the search bar. It is geo-targeted. Meaning, if you are near the area of the disaster, the link to the Crisis Response page with Person Finder should be available below the search bar.
After Haiti and Tohoku – Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines
Since the Haiti Earthquake, Google has launched Person Finder to include every major disaster that happened in the world.
During the great Japan Tohoku earthquake in 2010, Japanese and everyone in the world can find information on who’s alive and who has already been found. For non-Japanese, Person Finder’s Tohoku page was the closest English database of missing and found Japanese during the disaster. That was in 2010.
Fast forward to November 2013, the super typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) made its landfall in the Philippines. Possibly the largest storm ever, its strong winds and heavy rains were able to wreck even the most concrete of homes in Central Philippines. What was left after the typhoon is a trail of destruction, to the tune of more than 10,000 people dead and 10 million families affected.
Now that the rains have subsided, rescue efforts have begun. The country received aid from nations around the world. The local government, as well as volunteer organizations such as the Red Cross have started rescue and relief efforts. The Red Cross, in particular, have launched the Social Services Restoring Family Links and Tracing Services. A person who has a friend missing may call the Red Cross and the organization will then look for the missing person.
Google, on the other hand, has launched a dedicated Person Finder page specifically for this disaster. As of this writing, out of the 10,000 believed to be dead, only around 600 have been accounted for. If you have any information regarding anyone affected by the storm, contributing to Person Finder is probably the perfect way to help others. Go to the Person Finder page now, input the name of the person and state his status, whether he is missing or has been found.
Person Finder even has a mobile version. Anyone can easily type in SEARCH PERSON NAME on his or her mobile and send it to +16508003977.
For example, if you are looking for a person named Juan Cruz, simply type SEARCH JUAN CRUZ and send it to the number. This is very useful if you are somewhere with limited Internet connection, or if you are outside the country.
Now that electricity and communication are cut off in the areas affected, Google Person Finder can be used to find out any information on the victims. The Person Finder is not the only project that Google built and created in times of disaster. The establishment of The Google Crisis Response Page is another collaborative effort within Google, which leveraged on existing Google products to organize relevant information and make them more accessible in times of crises. To illustrate this further, we can take a look at the Crisis Response Page for Typhoon Yolanda:
As you can see from the above illustration, the Crisis Response Page brings together the most important sources with regards to the disaster. It has a description from Wikipedia, a map of the location affected as well as the locations of relief aids and shelter. It even has links to organizations where you can donate to.
Perhaps its most important feature is the social sharing buttons, which can help the page be shared across a person’s social networks.
Google Person Finder, as well as the Crisis Response Project are just some of the testaments as to how technology and the Internet can help in humanity’s efforts to help other people. Google being Google, it is definitely easier to find the information you need by just entering keywords on the search bar. However, Person Finder extends beyond search. It’s a method of finding what you need on the Internet, not just searching for people, but also on ways to help out the affected victims.