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WC Retro: KatrinaWiki, Katrina PeopleFinder: Distributed Technology Responses to Disaster

By Emily Gertz, posted on September 9, 2005.

KatrinaThe aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has fast become a global experience on par with the aftermaths of past four years of terrorist attacks and the Boxing Day tsunami. Extraordinary efforts of coooperation, communication and community are underway, with many dozens of folks contributing to an almost ground-up invention of technological and networked assistance systems to help people get emergency help, share info, and find each other amidst the destruction on the Gulf Coast, and the massive exodus of refugees/evacuees from New Orleans.

One thing that's especially striking to me is that these vital efforts are coalescing organically via varied branches of the community and democracy technology movements, filling gaps that might logically have been bridged by government efforts -- at all levels -- in the wake of the 9/11 attacks or the Southeast Asia tsunami, but weren't.

I'll cover two emerging projects here: KatrinaHelp, and the Katrina PeopleFinder Project (and apologize in advance for names overlooked, technological fine points elided, and other reflections of my haste to get this online -- please drop us updates, information and corrections via Worldchanging's suggestions form and know that I and others here are reading as fast as we can!)

Worldchanging contributor Dina Mehta and other veterans of the tsunamihelp/South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog effort quickly formed a parallel KatrinaHelp effort, putting up the KatrinaHelp Wiki to consolidate information as well as links out to other resources. This katrinahelp team also set up a virtual messaging center (using Internet telephone services SkypeIn and SkypeOut, as well as text messaging to Skype) to create a relay for emergency messages in and out of Gulf Coast disaster areas -- sometimes via ham radio operators -- enabling two way messaging where many or all communications systems have been severely damaged . Volunteers are staffing the "lines" in real time from Bahrain, Amsterdam, India, and the U.S. to relay information 24 hours a day.

On Saturday Dina posted a full update on her blog, including volunteer Angelo's account of an early success for the network:

Just put a call thru to LA. Might be our first semi-success story. The family was safe, lines are opened at 602 range is not down any longer - just her son missing, called back original sender to email, copied KatrinaHelp group and she (Connie) was overwhelmed!

The Katrina PeopleFinder Project is a quickly-formed, massively distributed effort -- already involving perhaps over 100 volunteer techies, and data-entry volunteers -- to create a uniform standard for collecting, compiling, data-entering, and (soon) searching information on people affected by Hurricane Katrina. Worldchanging contributors Ethan Zuckerman and Jon Lebkowsky have been both developing and blogging about the project, check out their entries for the in-progress accounts -- just a couple others include allies David Geilhufe of the Digital Divide Network, Nancy White of Full Circle Associates, Rebecca MacKinnon of Global Voices Online, folks at salesforce.com and CivicSpace, and many more.

At this writing, about 15,200 records have been entered manually by volunteers in less than 24 hours, culling information from several other online sources. Continued data entry will be key to the success of Katrina PeopleFinder. Click here if you want to volunteer -- note that with most email channels swamped, using this link will be the fastest way to get into the loop.

Conversations began to emerge early in this effort (which in highly accelerated katrinatime means within the past 24-48 hours or so) about the risk of duplicating other efforts -- notably those of the Red Cross. It's about "structuring" the data, Jon told me on the phone this morning -- matching up partial information from one source or another into what hopefully will be a comprehensive source, and one that compliments efforts by the Red Cross and others. David Geilhufe answers the same question from a different angle by invoking (rightly in this situation, I think) the magic words, 'open source':

We have published an open data spec, the PeopleFinder Interchange Format (PFIF), that can facilitate all the various databases syndicating information into a single database.

We are an open and community process working as quickly as possible to get information for individuals impacted by the hurricane.
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