Friday, February 16, 2007

Social Networks for Disaster Relief

Social networks like Friendster and MySpace are great when you want to share gossip or rate tunes. Millions of teens say these sites dominate their lives. What if one day, a social network could save lives?

A computer scientist, and a veteran of coordinated disaster response, think their proposed can do the job. They've written their findings in Science, and MIT's Technology Review is covering the story:

"The emergence of the Internet as a social environment led us to come up with a service where people could first report the scope of a tsunami or a wildfire or even an E. coli attack," says Ben Schneiderman, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland and a coauthor of the report. Schneiderman got the idea when he typed 911 into Google and was unable to find any useful information. "There was no service that would provide information or assistance during Katrina-like events." The system is not strictly an online analog of 911 or other emergency-reporting services, says Schneiderman. "We think it may be helpful in advance of emergencies, during emergencies, and during rebuilding and restoration afterwards."

Murray Turoff, of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, says that "what most people don't seem to understand is that the real first responders in disasters are the people in the community." Turoff, who developed the first emergency computer network for the U.S. Office of Emergency Preparedness in 1971, says that the government still has not taken steps to ensure that relief efforts are properly coordinated. "All these organizations need to be able to talk laterally," he says.

Jennifer Preece, an expert in human-computer interactions at the University of Maryland and a coauthor of the study, says that for to be successful, it will have to draw in volunteers from other communities and be integrated with existing social-networking sites. If the government backs the site, she says, it, too, could have the clout to draw in users. She points out that during Katrina, many people found their information by heading to local libraries. "Why did they go there? These are established and trusted communities that they know about."

It's only natural that computer users and disaster response experts would advocate a model that has proven wildly successful at coordinating events and disseminating community information. Sadly, we don't think there are many people at FEMA that have tried Myspace... Or are there?

More from Science...

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