Crowdsourcing a Crisis: Global Rescue Efforts Now Better Than Ever

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With 5, 692 confirmed deaths and 9,506 officially registered as missing, Japan’s earthquake and tsunami is already one of the most devastating events in recent history. Add to that the still unknown consequences of the damaged nuclear reactors and the total damage becomes incomprehensible. And that’s saying a lot, considering the destructive earthquakes, riots, and oil spills that have occurred in the last few years.

These crises, awful as they were, have given rise to more effective rescue technology, much of which depends on crowdsourcing. Thanks to the Japanese website Sinsai.info – a site that uses the crowdsourcing Web platform Ushahidi – within two hours of Japan’s earthquake an online map was identifying where people were trapped, what areas were unsafe, and where to go for clean food and water. A Web server and software, Ushahidi enables people to send critical information via cell phone and Internet, quickly publishing the information on an online map.

Ushahidi, which is Swahili for the word testimony, was originally launched to disseminate information in Kenya during the 2008 presidential elections when violent riots erupted. As Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman told BBC News, “From the very beginning was the idea that ordinary people knew more of what was going on on the ground than the government or big media was saying.” Since then, Ushahidi’s crisis mapping has been used in response to the Haitian earthquake, the Russian forest fires, the recent political riots in Africa – even snow removal in New York.

Ushahidi is not the only crowdsourced solution operating in Japan. Sparkrelief connects disaster victims with volunteers who want to donate emergency supplies. Currently, the website is helping people displaced by the tsunami find temporary housing. Google’s rescue effort, Person Finder, is a massive crowdsourced database that was created to help victims of Haiti’s earthquake find each other. Through Person Finder, users search for loved ones or add to the database with information about an individual’s whereabouts.

Certainly, we would all rather live without these crowdsourcing advancements if it meant we didn’t have to experience the catastrophes that made them necessary. Unfortunately, there are some forces – mother nature being one of them – that are unpreventable. Given this inevitability, are there still other ways to employ crowdsourcing in a crisis? How could crowdsourcing aid in finding a solution to one of the scariest consequences of Japan’s disaster – the nuclear reactors still emitting dangerous radiation?

Special thanks to Technology Review for information about crowdsourced rescue efforts.

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