News and notes from Google Down Under
When disaster strikes, let information slip through the net
Thursday, September 20, 2012
[This was originally published today in
The Sydney Morning Herald
When an earthquake shook country Victoria in late June, the first point of call for many Australians was online. "Earthquake" became the top trending term on Twitter within minutes and was the third fastest-rising search term in Australia for the month.
Google's search data show almost anywhere in the world, when a disaster strikes, people head online for information - warning alerts, recommended actions, evacuation routes, the state of essential utilities, social services, shelter and access to food. Tragically, this information isn't always there.
This can be for a variety of reasons: sometimes the information simply isn't online, or it is in a format that is hard to share on the internet or view on mobile. Official sources such as government websites can buckle under a surge in traffic, as happened to Geoscience Australia after the Victorian tremor.
A flood or an earthquake can also redraw our everyday landscape so that conventional maps don't work. For example, last year's Japanese tsunami flooded traffic arteries and many aid workers drove down a main road that had become a dead end, critically delaying services.
That's where the internet comes in. Having been part of the UN response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, I've experienced the challenges of gathering even the most basic information, such as who had access to which communities and where did people most need help? The astonishing rise of social media in Indonesia would bring a rush of answers today, as well as a few new challenges such as verification and information overload. But those challenges are far easier to tackle than the eerie silence that descended upon Aceh.
There's almost no justification for authorities withholding information. At a recent disaster-information conference in the Japanese city of Sendai, participants - from non government organisations to government agencies - unanimously agreed that limiting information does not help calm people. That consensus followed criticism of authorities for sitting on the release of nuclear contamination data for more than month because it was considered "not reliable enough" for the public, yet good enough to share with international agencies.
In an information vacuum, social media such as Twitter registers problems minutes after they occur; the information is soon in the hands of people who need help, as well as in the hands of people who want to help. Our rule of thumb is that the more information is shared, the better it gets. Limits on information cause anxiety.
As the bushfire season nears, the main lesson Australia can take from the Japan experience is to set up processes, collaborate and share data before a crisis. Since the 2009 Victorian bushfires, a lot of Australian agencies have those processes in place, but more often than not they've reached this conclusion the hardest possible way: through crises.
Assuming nearly all information the government has can be useful in a crisis, whether it's something obvious like community-bushfire evacuation routes or mundane details such as the location of portable toilets (an important issue during last year's Christchurch earthquake). Companies, too, can play a role and think about what useful information they can provide in a crisis: banks can let people know where ATMs are working, utilities can provide details on where power and water is available.
Secondly, let's provide that data in open and interoperable formats so it can be used and shared by anyone on the web, not locked in PDFs or JPG images as some evacuation routes and other critical data have been.
Thirdly, let's make data available under open licensing or permissions so that Google and others can legally republish it. At the peak of the 2009 bushfires in Victoria, a rush of traffic made the state's Department of Sustainability and Environment and Country Fire Authority websites hard to access. Google's crisis-response team used government information to launch a map of fire locations, updated in real time, which received more than 1 million page views. It doesn't matter who's hosting it, what counts most is that the information itself is resilient. So it makes sense to have many websites host it and take on the burden together.
It's cliche to say collaboration helps us survive a crisis. What that means today is that information isn't worth anything unless people are taking that information, adapting it, consulting it and getting it to the people who need it.
Posted by Nigel Snoad,
product manager for Google.Org's Crisis Response team.
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