(Note: I should have remembered that Emily linked to this in her post from the other day about distributed responses to disaster. And I should have noted that WorldChanging's Jon Lebkowsky and Ethan Zuckerman have been critical to getting this project going. Still, it's worth calling out for additional attention, as it's suggestive of the lessons being learned from this disaster.)
There are over 50 sites on the web set up to help New Orleans evacuees and their loved ones find each other. Problem is, none of these sites talk to each other, so people trying to find their family and friends end up having to find and search every one of the sites, just in case the names they were hoping to see only ended up in a single database. The PeopleFinderTech team has set out to implement a standardized data format (PFIF, or PeopleFinder Interchange Format) for these sites, making it possible to search many (hopefully all) of the databases in one go. The database, when completed, will live at http://katrinalist.net.
The project is well underway, but still has some major hurdles to leap before it's ready -- and here's how you can help.
The database is being compiled in two ways: current sites are being "scraped" (that is, the data output is being copied in a coarse fashion) for processing into the KatrinaList system; and administrators of the various list websites are being given assistance in adding PFIF compatibility to their databases. Both of these efforts need more assistance. We know that many readers work in computer technology professions, and may well have the skillsets needed to make this project successful.
One of the characteristics of bottom-up, emergent efforts is the high likelihood of process redundancy and duplication of work. This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- it helps to ensure that work gets done, and makes the overall system more robust (a single people finder database set up the day of the hurricane, when it looked like much less of a disaster, might not have been able to handle the load resulting from the real scale of the emergency). But such redundancy can also mean dramatically reduced effectiveness in situations like this, where the efforts are duplicated but the information isn't.
Just like the December tsunami triggered a flurry of activity in terms of distributed emergency notification, Katrina looks likely to be the catalyst for improvements in our ability to coordinate bottom-up efforts to link the victims with those who can help.
Yahoo has created a search tool just for searching all the missing persons databases: