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Google Person Finder: a tool born of disaster, from Hurricane Katrina to Japan's quake, tsunami

April 2, 2011 | 11:07 am

About one hour after a 9.0 earthquake struck Japan on March 11, Google's Person Finder system was up and running, collecting records and enabling people to search through them online for their loved ones who were either injured or missing.

Thousands of records were uploaded on day one as a massive tsunami followed the catastrophic quake. Nearly three weeks later, with a resulting nuclear plant crisis still unfolding, Google Person Finder is tracking about 607,000 records, a testament to just how far-reaching the natural disasters have been for Japan.

But Person Finder, while being launched for the crisis in Japan so quickly, got its start as a product of Google.org after the Haiti earthquake, in January 2010, said Prem Ramaswami, a Google project manager.

"The New York Times, CNN, all these news agencies had their own private databases of missing persons information and there was the U.S. Department of State and a bunch of governmental organizations that had their own databases of information too," Ramaswami said. "What we were able to do was create a hub for all of that information, and it was built completely open source and it was basically, anyone who wanted to help out at Google, that could help out at Google, was pretty much able to help out. It was a massive effort."

Ps_logo2 The initial push to build Google Person finder came from Google.org's first engineer, Ka-Ping Yee, who worked as one of about 4,000 volunteers on a similar tool called the Katrina PeopleFinder Project in 2005, he said.

"Before Ka-Ping joined Google, he had worked to define the PFIF or People Finder Interchange Format after Hurricane Katrina," Ramaswami said. After of Hurricane Katrina, multiple websites created similar people searching tools but they failed to join their data together, resulting in people having to use multiple websites for information, he said.

At Google, which has a tremendous amount of resources when compared to a collective of independent programmers working together over the Web, Yee and his colleagues saw an opportunity to use what had begun with Hurricane Katrina to help those dealing with Haiti and future natural disasters, he said.

"In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, we had engineers volunteering from Mountain View, Calif.; New York; Israel; Dublin; Zurich; and Bangalore," Ramaswami said.

"The thing we're good at is scaling; we can handle big traffic. So in basically 72 hours of mad global coding we got something together. And we had a lot of buy-in from higher ups in Google to leave the various projects we were working on to get to focus on this, so to some extent we skipped the process of launching a product because it launched in a crisis, and we've been able to go back and reiterate Person Finder since then as uses have come about."

Since then, Google hasn't hesitated to call on those outside its ranks for assistance in improving Person Finder either. It's created a Developer Guide to get people started in helping build the technology and a running list of issues and feature requests Google has received from those who user Person Finder has been posted as well. 

"There's so many people out there that want to contribute and help out," Ramaswami said. "This isn't an area where you want to compete, this is an area where everyone should have the same database and be working together, so we try to make that as easy as possible."

Resources related to the 2011 Japan crisis Person Finder has also seen improvements at programmer gatherings such as past Random Hacks of Kindness hackathon events where external developers have submitted new features such as subscriptions and language translations, Ramaswami said.

After Haiti, Google.org's Crisis Response Team (which Google employees join and leave as needed) has launched Person Finder in various languages for the Chile earthquake in February 2010, the Qinghai earthquake in China in April 2010, the Pakistan floods in September and in February of this year, the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand.

About a week before Japan's earthquake struck, Ramaswami and a handful of Google.org engineers spent about five days in Christchurch to see firsthand how people were using Person Finder and crisis response tools in an effort to find ways to improve the tool.

"The reason why the Christchurch earthquake was so interesting was that new Zealand has about 75% Internet penetration," Ramaswami said. "When everything else is down, when even SMS texts took about five hours to get out and SMS messages even got lost, the Internet there still functioned and worked, which isn't the case in other countries. We talked to 15-year-olds who went straight to Twitter first to find out what's going on and we saw just how useful Twitter was there.

"It was also very shocking to find out the impact of the earthquake itself. It was 2.2-Gs on the ground. That would have thrown you off the ground if you were standing and there was a displacement of items of almost 4 meters. It's insane to think about that level of movement and that level of destruction."

Ramaswami said he was sitting on his couch watching TV on Presidents Day when his work cellphone rang and "I ignored it and then my personal phone started ringing and I knew it was something serious." That was the start of Google mobilizing engineers to build Person Finder for Christchurch, he said.

"We basically used Twitter to announce Person Finder for Christchurch and within a few hours we were tracking about 3,000 missing person reports and a lot of the local press in New Zealand started using it," Ramaswami said. 

The Christchurch earthquake resulted in a few new tools which have been very useful for Person Finder in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake and tsunami, he said.

"One of the things we have in the instance in Japan is the ability to report spam and delete records, two features we didn't have ready for Christchurch, though we've never seen a large number of people spamming this tool," Ramaswami said. "And the idea of email subscriptions was something we heard people wanted in Chirstchurch and other disasters and we finally got that implemented for Japan. We've been working on that for awhile."

The Japan team has really taken off with Person Finder in unique ways, he said.

"They picked up the code base to integrate Japanese characters, and they also were able to pick up information from local networks to help get data into Person Finder -- the local telcos, telecommunications companies, actually send SMS messages to their customers and ask if they are OK and we worked with the telcos and the government to integrate that data into person finder the right way."


For the Japan disasters, Person finder had over 30 million page views in the first 48 hours, he said. 

Picasa Web Albums - Google Japan "We have basically a user interface on our end and it lets us say, 'Here's a country and here's a location' and then we have a website, we've gotten it down so we can build this up quick," Ramaswami said. 

"It took us about half an hour to get it up after we found out that everyone in our Japan office was OK, which took about half an hour itself. And of those 30 minutes to get it up, once we found out everyone was OK, a good 25 minutes was spent arguing over what the url should be because we want people to be able to remember it easily."

Company employees in Japan have also used other Google services to help increase Person Finder's capabilities, namely Picasa, he said.

The Google Japan team set up www.goo.gl/ganbare where people in Japan can submit photos and "then we translate the information on the photos and get that information into Person Finder," Ramaswami said.

"There are people who are in the shelters and are OK and they may not be able to keep electronic records, so here's a solution to that problem," he said. "Actually getting this in to Person Finder, for the most part it's done by human translation; people reading other people's writing. And to sift through every record posted in this photo album and enter in this data by hand, correctly, that's a big effort. But it's just another example of how people find uses for the technology that's available to help solve the problems they face. I can't speak proudly enough of that kind of work."

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

twitter.com/nateog

Images, from top: Google's logo; Google.org's Crisis Response website with Person Finder and other tools used to aid those affected by the Japan earthquake and tsunami; A screenshot of www.goo.gl/ganbare, a Picasa web album that collects handwritten information for Person Finder. Credit: Google

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