Let’s be Google-prepared!

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Google Crisis Response: a small team tackling big problems

Posted: 04 Apr 2011 01:38 PM PDT

This is the latest post in our series profiling entrepreneurial Googlers working on products across the company and around the world. Speed in execution is important for any Google product team, but as we learned after the recent earthquakes in both Japan and New Zealand, it’s even more critical in crisis response. This post is an inside look at the efforts of our year-old Crisis Response team, and what they’re doing to make preparedness tools available to anyone at the click of a button. – Ed.

The Google Crisis Response Team came together in 2010 after a few engineers and I realized that we needed a scalable way to make disaster-related information immediately available and useful in a crisis. Until a little over a year ago, we responded to crises with scattered 20 percent time projects, but after the Haiti earthquake in January 2010 we saw the opportunity to create a full-time team that would make critical information more accessible during disaster situations.

For us to help during a crisis, it’s vital to get things done really quickly, and we’ve been able to do that as a small team within Google. Working from a standard already developed by one of the Google engineers, Person Finder was built and launched in 72 hours after the Haitian earthquake, and it launched within three hours after the New Zealand earthquake in February. Unfortunately, there have been an unusually high number of disasters over the last year, forcing us to learn and get even faster.

Within minutes of hearing about the 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan in March, Googlers around the world—from engineers to webmasters to product managers—immediately started organizing a Google Crisis Response resource page with disaster-related information such as maps and satellite imagery, Person Finder and news updates and citizen videos on YouTube. In Japan, Person Finder went live within an hour of the earthquake. More than 600,000 contact entries have been made since then—more than all other disasters combined—and there have been several reports of people finding their loved ones safe. I was inspired by my colleagues’ ability to launch tools about an hour after the earthquake struck; the Tokyo office, in particular, has really been helping to drive the rapid response and provided real-time information to teams across the globe, even while aftershocks were rocking the city and buildings were still swaying. 

But we’re eager to find other ways of helping. In addition to these efforts focused on specific situations, we’ve worked hard this past year to more broadly organize the information most helpful during crisis situations and make it possible for people to use that data in near real-time. If people are asking for information, then in our view, it’s already too late. In these situations, it’s incredibly important that things happen fast.

So in addition to building products, we collaborate with many incredible organizations to make technology useful for responding to a crisis. For example, Random Hacks of Kindness is a collaboration between technology companies and government organizations which encourages teams around the world to create software solutions to problems that arise during a crisis. Recent “RHoKstars” have created all sorts of useful tools—from HeightCatcher, which helps identify malnourishment of children in relief camps by accurately assessing height and weight through a mobile device, to new features for Person Finder, such as email notifications, automatic translation and phonetic name matching—which have all been extremely useful in Japan. These projects present a real opportunity to improve lives by employing crowd-sourcing technology and real-time data during a crisis.

The sheer number of major natural disasters in 2010 and early 2011 demonstrates just how important it is for those involved in relief efforts to have real-time access to information no matter where they are. The Google Crisis Response team has worked over the past year to develop open source initiatives that encourage collaboration with larger crisis response efforts, including relief organizations, NGOs and individual volunteers. And although we’re a small team and still relatively new to the crisis response ecosystem, we hope the resources and support we receive from Google and our community partners around the world will make a difference in preparedness efforts.




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