Haiti: A call to "peoplefinder" site builders - open your data!


An open letter from Christopher Csikszentmihalyi, Director of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, concerning the sites set up by news organizations to help find people in Haiti. Chris has a suggestion for making these efforts more effective. A post on the New York Times says they've made their data available to Google. No word from CNN. Christopher writes:

In the response to the earthquake in Haiti, many organizations worked to create sites where people could find one another, or least information about their loved ones. This excellent idea has been undermined by its success: within 24 hours it became clear that there were too many places where people were putting information, and each site is a silo. The site Haitianquake.com began "scraping" -- mechanically aggregating -- the most popular such sites, like koneksyon.com and American Red Cross Family Links.

As people within the IT community recognized the danger of too many unconnected sites, and Google became interested in helping, they turned their work over to Google which is now running an embeddable application at haiticrisis.appspot.com.

We recognize that many newspapers have put precious resources into developing a people-finder system. We nonetheless urge them to make their data available to the Google project, and standardize on the Google widget. Doing so will greatly increase the number of successful reunions. Data from the google site is currently available as "dumps" in the standard PFIF format (on this page), and an API is being developed, and licensed through Creative Commons. I am not affiliated with Google -- indeed, this is a volunteer initiative by some of their engineers -- but this is one case where their reach and capacity can help the most people.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the reasoning behind this request. Any questions about the widget or its functionality or features are best directed to Google.

Christopher P. Csikszentmihalyi
Director, MIT Center for Future Civic Media
csik at media dot mit dot edu

(via Mark Fest, of the Knight Foundation -- the MIT Center for Future Civic Media is a Knight Foundation grantee).


  1. I can remember participating in a giant volunteer wiki project during the aftermath of Katrina that was all about lost/found/missing people. As I remember info was culled from newspaper/internet classified postings from all over the south. I could work on my computer in the midwest by spending time transferring gathered info into a standardized and searchable database. I’ve been wondering why I haven’t heard about anything like this for Haiti. I don’t have the programing expertise to organize something like this but lots of us know enough to be grunt data workers. I know for myself that project felt way better than throwing money at an ngo (though I did that too)

    1. lakelady, I remember that! I was on the phone with west Louisiana Red Cross people trying to get their help accessing the RC data for that database. The local RC guys couldn’t get higher-ups to talk to them through the chaos, so we went to screen-scraping and manual entry.

      One big problem is the Internet infrastructure in Haiti. I remember during Katrina that one or two independent ISPs were pretty much holding up the Internet in N.O. for the first week or two by sheer will. Haiti _before_ the quake (and after getting hit several times by hurricanes this year) barely had the infrastructure that N.O. had _after_ Katrina.

      The Google infrastructure factor, which barely could have existed even just 4 1/2 years ago for Katrina, is here in force now, so it’ll be fascinating to see how much it bridges that gap.

  2. The app is, so far, keyed only to names. However a lot of the corpses or even the still breathing but unconscious bodies won’t have that information available. Could the casinos donate some time on their facial recognition software so that it could work off of pictures?

    1. There are a few problems with that suggestion. First is the requirement for original photos with identifying names. Second is the suggestion that someone then photograph all those unable to identify themselves by name and upload the photos for analysis — I imagine that’s rather low on the priority list. Finally, the faces may well be in anything but pristine condition, either due to direct trauma or the hardships of having no access to food, water, or shelter. Given the importance of accurate information in this situation, you really don’t want to have a bunch of “whoops, sorry, our software guessed wrong” scenarios.

  3. I recall during katrina, one of the more useful things that a bunch of volunteers from where I work did was put together a mash-up app that that would search several of those people finder sites at once. I remember manning a help desk at a shelter and helping some folks find their family members with that.

    (The other useful thing was a ruby-on-rails app put together in 3 days of no sleep that helped the Red Cross run several of the big shelters in San Antonio.)

    Someone aught to put together a repository of “disaster software” that can be grabbed at a moments notice for rapid deployment in case of emergency. Pre-canned “people finder” webapps, logistics software for distributing relief supplies, mapping apps, software for running emergency shelters (checkin/out, printing shelter ID cards for folks who’ve lost all ID’s ), etc. Alot of this stuff is simple and can help make things run MUCH more smoothly.

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