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The scale of the devastation in Haiti has taken the wider world by surprise. Efforts to coordinate aid and generating funds though have come in some unusual guises.
Google, a search engine with the world’s information at its fingertips, has been quick to develop ways for loved ones to contact one another on the beleaguered Caribbean nation. Using the Google Crisis Response page for Haiti, they have provided a specialist ‘Person Finder’, in which people looking for their loved ones or have information about people can share details. This database may be simple, but it will undoubtedly come as an invaluable resource for families attempting to make contact.
The page also includes a number of ways to make donations, primarily through Google Checkout, as well as information on the latest news. Google Earth has been put to good use with specialist GeoEye imagery of the affected areas following the earthquake itself. Interestingly Google have also opened up Google Voice, allowing those calling to or from Haiti – where communication systems have been hugely damaged – to do so for free.
Of course, it should be noted that Yahoo, Bing and Ask are also carrying links to the Disasters Emergency Committee website, where you can of course donate and find out information.
But this particular disaster appears to have shown the positive effects that the Internet can have when more conventional communication methods fail. Twitter has once again been at the forefront of reporting the disaster as it unfolded, with Haitians able to share first hand accounts and images before any news services were able to respond. This was a feature of the Iranian crisis last year [see: Twitter Becomes a Frontline News Source] and a number of other pivotal news stories; but once again, the real-time element of the Internet appears to be coming into its own.
Google too appear to be using their global dominance to provide a valuable service. Pooling their various programmes, search technologies and general knowledge base, they are one of the best positioned companies to provide such information. Their People Finder has attracted the attention of some major newspapers, including the New York Times, who are now sharing their information to help expand the database, to make a more definitive reference point.
This is a real coming of age for the Internet. Finally it appears that it is not just a subsidiary to day-to-day life, but in fact an essential reference point. The strength of the search engine now is such that it can enable public involvement on a worldwide scale, whilst also maintaining the normal search requirements of those outside of the danger zone. It has all of the information, power and resources available within a click, making the whole process far smoother than we could ever have imagined previously.
So perhaps there are benefits to having a single company monopolising data, certainly in these sorts of unprecedented situations. Of course that is a far more wide reaching argument and one to perhaps tackle another day.