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).