Technology and social media are transforming the ways individuals and organizations regroup after disasters and allowing people quicker access to information.
In decades past, after a large-scale natural disaster, the people affected and their friends and loved ones often struggled to reconnect. In New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, phone lines were disrupted and people resorted to pinning missing-persons posters around the city.
But now technology and social media are transforming the ways individuals and organizations regroup after disasters and allowing people quicker access to information.
This became clear in the response to the devastating earthquake in Nepal, as technology companies deployed apps to connect people in the earthquake zone with their panicked friends and relatives. Google and Facebook are among the companies that have introduced apps designed for disasters.
Arjun Vatsa, 27, a business-development consultant who lives in New York City, was frantic when he heard the news of the earthquake Saturday morning. He worried about 20 or so of his schoolmates from India who live in Nepal.
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“It was very scary,” he said.
He logged on to a group chat on WhatsApp, a messaging app, then to Facebook and news sites. Soon enough, Facebook’s Safety Check tool appeared in his news feed, identifying friends who might be in the affected areas, based on location data and profile information.
When the tool is deployed, it contacts those users and asks them to update their status so friends will know if they are safe. The tool can also be used to check on other users.
“When someone marked themselves safe it started showing up automatically in my notifications, so that was really helpful,” Vatsa said. “That was a great way of using social media in a different way. In times of disaster, something like this becomes very useful.”
Facebook said millions of users in Nepal, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh had been marked as safe, and their status had been relayed to tens of millions of people as of Monday afternoon.
Google and the Red Cross took a slightly different tack, assembling databases with the names of people in affected areas. As of Monday afternoon, the list compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross had 1,385 people registered as missing and 241 registered as safe and alive. That site allows users to input and search data.
Anna Nelson, a spokeswoman for the organization, said the effort to restore family links was vital in humanitarian disasters.
“Often, before someone wants a drink of water, something to eat, or a blanket to sleep on, they want to know, ‘Where is my husband? Where is my child? Where is my mother?’ That’s why efforts to restore family links are so important,” Nelson said in an email.
Google’s Person Finder was tracking about 6,300 records as of Monday evening. Anyone can enter a person’s name, biographical information and photograph into Google’s database. You can specify whether you are that person, are seeking information about that person or have reason to believe the person is either alive or missing. Google does not review or verify the data.
The database can be searched online or by texting a name to a designated phone number. The idea is to centralize information so that users do not have to seek out multiple sources.
Google’s tool can also accept data from other registries. The common format used, called PFIF, was established by a group of volunteers after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to Google. After that disaster, multiple lists of missing people sometimes created confusion, pointing to a need for a central database.
The tool was introduced in 2010 after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and it was used again the next year after the major earthquake in Japan.
Nongovernmental organizations can embed Person Finder on their websites to get the information to a wider audience.
Payal Patel, a product manager for Person Finder, said it is an open-source tool that other developers and organizations can use and adapt as they see fit. It is available in Nepali, Hindi and several other languages.
“We’re very saddened by the disaster and just doing our little bit to try and help,” she said.