In 10 Years, Finding Someone Lost in a Disaster Has Really Evolved

Google's "People Finder" is proving quietly useful amid the Philippine typhoon crisis.
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U.S. Marines assisting in the Philippine disaster relief. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

U.S. Marines assisting in the Philippine disaster relief. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, stories were common of people taking unusually creative measures to find out if someone there had survived, or drowned. Reliable ways to send messages or broadcast the names of the living or dead were not well-developed, and in some cases weeks or months passed before people in the area had any idea who was still alive. In one widely-reported case, an Indonesian child was only re-united with her family in 2011, after being separated in the disaster and seven years apart.

A special page currently has more than 84,000 entries, filed under one of two headings, "I'm looking for someone" or "I have information about someone."

The storm the world is calling Haiyan and Philippine reports call Yolanda has led to a similar wave of mass displacement, and so it's worth pointing out that Google, goosing its mouldering claim to not be evil, has made its obscure "people finder" function particularly useful this week. A special page labeled "Typhoon Yolanda" currently has more than 84,000 entries, filed under one of two headings, "I'm looking for someone" or "I have information about someone." Clicking on the "information" page and typing in a name creates a list of search results, including a line where someone can note whether a person has been located, his or her condition, an address, and how to reach the person. Photos can also be posted with names.

None of the information is verified by Google, the page notes. A trial search (typing in the name "Aquino," the Philippines president's name) noted entries where inquiries had been made.

So far, the list is largely filled with empty records, names presumably posted by family in the hope that someone will add information there. Some have: Not all of the listings that emerge from searching "Aquino," for example, are empty. As you scroll through, every dozen or so listings, a small note shows up under a name that "someone has received information that this person is alive." There's rarely more than that, and Google's language feels a bit anodyne, given the implications of the statement. On the other hand, it's not clear, at this early stage in the crisis, that anyone who has posted one of the 84,000 names, and is waiting for someone to fill in any of the blanks, would need to hear much more.

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