During the recent natural disaster known as Isaac, I was busily tracking the progress of the storm and attempting to determine the potential threat to my community near the Gulf Coast. Thirsting for information, I was always searching for additional tidbits that might be of practical use. During my continuous search, I found a most comprehensive resource that had information available about Isaac and its effects, and also included evacuation routes and traffic information, graphically displayed evacuation shelters, sources and locations of assistance, local weather warnings, radar and satellite images, user generated YouTube videos, live Webcams from the impacted areas, and a variety of other valuable information and data. This important online resource was Google Crisis Response at google.org/crisisresponse.
According to Google, the explicit purpose of its Crisis Response service is, “Making critical information more accessible in times of disaster. When disaster strikes, people turn to the Internet for information. We help ensure the right information is there in these times of need by building tools to collect and share emergency information, and by supporting first responders in using technology to help improve and save lives. ... When a disaster strikes, the Google Crisis Response team assesses the severity and scope of the disaster, and the relevance of our tools for the situation to determine whether and how to respond. ... Google’s contributions can include updated satellite imagery of the disaster area, charitable donations to organizations on the ground, outreach through Google Web properties, and engineering tools such as Google Person Finder and Landing Pages, designed to organize and coordinate critical response resources and information.”
While responding to Isaac and its aftermath, was one of the most recent projects for Google’s crisis team, it is not its first major response. The Google Crisis response service with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 by posting information including shelter locations, emergency numbers, and information for those willing to donate to disaster assistance services such as the Red Cross. California based Google is a truly international organization, with facilities around the globe. This international scope also influences the crises that it covers, including recent past events such as the October 2011 earthquake in Turkey; the October 2011; floods in Thailand; a multitude of hurricanes including Irene, Ike and Gustav; Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami (March, 2011); earthquakes in New Zealand, Haiti, Italy, Chile, China and Pakistan; floods in Brazil, Australia, Pakistan and North Dakota; massive fires in California; and Pacific cyclones. Not all of the crises covered are natural disasters, as the Google Crisis Response service also covered the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Google Crisis Response offers a variety of tools to responders and emergency management agencies, as well as the general public. One of the tools is Google Public Alerts at google.org/publicalerts. The heading on the Web page says, “Important alerts from across the Web when and where they are needed most.” These public alerts are superimposed on a fully scalable Google map and continuously updated in real-time, with the most important or relevant warnings placed at the top of the list by default. As I type this, the public alerts include tornado warnings, severe thunderstorm warnings, and flood warnings. An example of the usefulness of timely information on Public Alerts, which may also be life saving, includes a pair of tornado warnings announced by the National Weather Service just two minutes before I opened the alerts page. In addition to weather and storm information, local and regional emergency management officials can register with the Google Crisis Response team and post their emergency announcements on the Public Alerts Web site. For mobile use on Android devices (Android is a Google product), a new app “Google Now” is incorporated into the recently released Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean” and automatically displays appropriate alerts from the Google Crisis Response team and Public Alerts. These Public Alerts can also be viewed in any browser on any computer, tablet or smart phone.As often happens in times of crisis, evacuations, and other serious events, people and families are separated, which can create emotional and logistical issues. As an integral component of its Crisis Response system, Google has created Google Person Finder at google.org/personfinder. This Person Finder service is “ ... an open platform for individuals and organizations to let people know who they’re looking for and to enter updates about missing persons.” Organizations can embed the code for Person Finder in their Web sites to allow for people to utilize the service. Emergency management personnel and other responders can download the lists from Person Finder, as well as upload names to the system.
Many of us use the online Google Maps (or similar competing products) instead of a published road atlas, and are well aware of the power and flexibility of Google Maps. Responders and emergency management officials can create customized Google Maps to provide current information to the public or response teams. The types of information that can be graphically displayed include “crisis information such as road closures and resources such as emergency medical stations; draw lines and shapes to highlight paths and areas that are covered in debris; Add your own text, photos, and videos to provide context.” Customized Google maps may be available to the general public or restricted to designated users such as the media or co-workers.
Other Google services that can be utilized both by the general public and officials in times of crisis or disaster include Google Earth, Google Fusion Tables (google.com/fusiontables/Home), Google Docs, and Google Sites. Google Fusion Tables can be used to “visualize your data from shelter lists to power outages instantly as a map or a chart. Identify data patterns to aid in crisis decision making; show the world your work in real time by embedding your map or chart in a Web page; collaborate with other responders by merging your data, allowing you to see all important related information in one place.” Google Docs can be used to host and display a quantity and variety of documents in virtually any major document or spreadsheet formats, access to which may be controlled, restricted or made public. Google Sites can be used to quickly create and upload Web sites with current and relevant information.Google Crisis Response and its components already are a valuable resource in times of crisis and disaster. Google already integrates current real-time data provided by major federal agencies into its crisis services maps and information resources; it would be a great benefit if more local, regional, and state emergency management agencies participate and provide appropriate data to the service. Being on the Gulf Coast, a readily available centralized repository of critical crisis data and information could literally be a lifesaver.
Listen to Ira Wilsker’s weekly radio show on Mondays from 6-7 p.m. on KLVI 560AM.