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Sep 02, 2005: How Might IAs Help Disaster Victims?

Hi all, I just heard from Alan Gutierrez, an old friend who lived in New Orleans for a few years. He's set up a wiki to help reconnect students and staff from a local college with their families. Although maintaining the wiki quickly outstripped Alan's time and energy, families and individuals have started taking on the work themselves. It's been a wonderful example where one person with a little bit of technology can help people in need, and ultimately enable a community repair itself.

(Alan's written up his experience on his blog.)

Alan wishes more could be done--more wikis for more communities in New Orleans and other hurricane-stricken areas. One of the biggest challenges is simply organizing the huge amounts of content that's already available, and getting it in a usable, presentable form in wiki-space. Hmmm... Who do we know that's good at doing that?

I've suggested that Alan assemble a "to-do" list in his wiki where IAs and others could claim tasks (I'll update this posting when the page is ready). Having only thought about this for about five minutes, I wonder what else we can do, as individual IAs or collectively?

Please respond here so we can gather advice in one place; thanks!

Update: Alan's suggested "to-do's" are here.

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Comment: Marcia Morante (Sep 3, 2005)

Any suggestion seems totally insignificant when compared to the magnitude of the disaster. But as IAs, we probably come across lots of information that might otherwise go unnoticed. For example, one of the lists that I'm on noted the suspension of Express Mail to specific Gulf Coast zip codes. So, if you were thinking about sending help to family or friends, here's one mode of transportation that's out.

Weather Related Service Updates

August 30, 2005 - 3 p.m. ET

Express Mail Service suspended in areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina

Due to the significant network disruption and catastrophic damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, the sale of Express Mail to the following ZIP Codes is suspended:

ZIP Code
Mobile, AL.
Hattiesburg, MS.
Gulfport, MS.
New Orleans, LA.
Houma, LA.
Mandeville, LA.

Comment: Janet Blake (Sep 3, 2005)

At http://neworleansnetwork.org people from Civicspacelabs have just created a survivor data schema and are working on getting feeds from other sites.

"Missing persons data is scattered all over the web, much of it in an unstructured format. Rather than have refugees search across hundreds of message boards to find someone, we want to try to populate peoplefinder with as many missing and found people as possible as soon as possible. This would be a good old fashioned community organizing effort on the web... people can go to the various message boards and other listings and start entering that information into the people finder. I figure a couple thousand people, a couple of hours each and enter more than enough information to make the people finder highly useful.

But we need more help:
(1) Internet organizers that can help plan for how we are going to notify and coordinate once the technology is live.
(2) Technology folks that can write programs that will collect structured data on the web (CNN, tabular data, etc) so we can dump it into our database."

Comment: Prentiss Riddle (Sep 5, 2005)

Even CNN has been reporting on the many uncoordinated people finders, and Larry King the other night had the sad spectacle of a guy from a volunteer people-finder operation butting heads with a spokesperson from the Red Cross about whose people-finder to use.

It seems to me that people finding is one place where structured data is essential and wikis and blogs and grassroots efforts should have a support role, not a central one. And it's another testament to the sham that is the Bush administration's Department of Homeland Security that the integration of various sources of government and consumer data is either nonexistent or unavailable to this effort. The mythical big database in the sky that was supposedly being built to track terrorists could surely be put to use to identify displaced persons.

People-finding aside, here on the ground in Texas another unfilled need is a way to coordinate volunteer and donor efforts. We've got a mini Craig Shergold effect as conflicting requests for goods and volunteers ricochet around through people's mailboxes. Actual needs change by the hour and e-mail alerts can't keep up. A central and rigorously current source of authoritative local information would be a big help.

How can IAs help? Well, if I were Google I'd set my best data-mining brains to the task of integrating the grassroots wikis and blogs with the wildcat people-finder databases and commercially available consumer info.

And for local disaster info it may be too late to control the chaos this time, but perhaps every locality's Red Cross, city governments and news media should put together a disaster IT committee to prepare for the next one.

Comment: Noreen Whysel (Sep 6, 2005)

Another thing to remember is the vast number of displaced people who do not have access to technology to look up relatives on an online forum. These people are poor. They may not have had access before the storm or the knowledge or ability to use wikis or other technologies now. For this reason it is imperative to work with the media and Red Cross and other coordinating bodies to ensure that data uncovered by an online service is available to those without internet access. Online missing persons tools are a godsend for those outside the disaster area looking for loved ones, but we must not forget the have-nots who are the biggest victims of this tragedy.

Comment: Prentiss Riddle (Sep 21, 2005)

This is less about IA than the specific tasks at hand, but Badger has been blogging about the frustrations and rewards of hands-on work with the information needs of evacuees.

She's summed up what she learned in a FAQ for peoplefinding:


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