September 16, 2005

Katrina aftermath shows need for ‘Net in a disaster

It’s a Sunday morning, a week or two before this column runs. The TV’s on, with a news channel selected. And pretty much all that I’m hearing is Katrina, Katrina, Katrina.

I wish I had a political column – I have a lot to say. I’d like to comment on the moral bankruptcy of a President who publicly states that even if you are starving or dying of dehydration, there’s no excuse for looting (echoes of the attitudes of the ruling class in the days when someone stealing bread to feed a child could be hung), or of a White House Press Secretary who’s so out of touch that he believes there’s no need to loot, because help is on the way (does he own a television?). But I don’t have a political column, so I won’t.

So, I’ll stick to technology. It recently occurred to me that in this situation, with an area almost the size of Colorado under a state of emergency, with people being evacuated in various directions, with families being split up, the Internet could help connect people, very quickly and cheaply.

There are already systems created for this purpose. MSNBC.com has been advertising such a system, where you can leave messages for friends and relatives. Nola.com, a Web site owned by the Times-Picayune newspaper, has a crude system, using a bulletin-board system for people to post messages. FEMA has a list (at FEMA.gov), of different systems, from the Missing Person’s Board at NowPublic.com to the I’m Okay Board (wwltv.com) owned by a TV station in New Orleans, from HomePort (homeport.uscg.mil) owned by the Coast Guard, to the Yahoo! News Family Message boards.

Of course there are problems with these systems. They are, in most cases, not very good. They are, in many cases, not really built for the purpose of finding missing people, or reconnecting with people you’ve been separated from. Forums are a decent “quick fix,” but they’re not ideal for this purpose. None of the ones I looked at, though I’ll admit I didn’t look at all of them, was a good system.

The second problem is that there are simply too many. If you’re looking for someone, or trying to get the word out that you’re safe, you have to know about all of them, and then spend hours going from one to the other filling out forms. That makes it hard, for instance, for a refugee center to help people connect with family via the Internet; rather than each family getting 10 minutes on a terminal, each family needs an hour or so.

Why don’t we have one, single, people-locator system? Why hasn’t FEMA built this, or the Department of Homeland Security? In, fact isn’t this an obvious function of the Department of Homeland Security? But if you visit their site (www.dhs.gov/) and click the Finding Friends and Information link, you’re directed to the FirstGov.gov list of various people locators.

How was this missed? It’s something that can be built cheaply, and promoted cheaply, too. This system could be built with the small change left over from just one of the department’s major projects; we’re talking in the tens of thousands of dollars, not millions. We’ve spent tens of billions of dollars over the past four years preparing for catastrophes. Surely a few bucks could have been found for something like this.

Once built, it would be easy to get the word out. Rather than having MSNBC, Yahoo, the Red Cross, CNN and probably dozens of other sites all competing for business, everyone could point to one well-designed system.

Of course, the last problem with a people locator is that people have to be able to get to an Internet-connected system so they can access it. Clearly many people have managed to do so, and over time Internet access will become ubiquitous, with WiFi hotspots beginning to cover our cities. (Have you noticed that Burger King and McDonalds are now installing hotspots? I’m sure that in emergencies such restaurant chains would happily ship a few laptops to locations in emergency areas and just outside, and help people access the people-locator system.) In addition, refugee centers could very cheaply and easily provide terminals that people could use to post messages and search for loved ones.

The system I envision costs very little to build, costs very little to maintain, and can be reused for years for emergencies large and small. We’ve never seen a catastrophe quite like Katrina, but we do see smaller hurricanes quite frequently – people do get split up, and they do have family outside the area worried about them.

This is such an obvious use of the Internet, it’s cheap, it’s easy … it’s time.

Peter Kent is an Internet Marketing consultant in Denver. His most recent book is “Search Engine Optimization for Dummies”. He can be reached at pkent@ichannelservices.com.,/i>

It’s a Sunday morning, a week or two before this column runs. The TV’s on, with a news channel selected. And pretty much all that I’m hearing is Katrina, Katrina, Katrina.

I wish I had a political column – I have a lot to say. I’d like to comment on the moral bankruptcy of a President who publicly states that even if you are starving or dying of dehydration, there’s no excuse for looting (echoes of the attitudes of the ruling class in the days when someone stealing bread to feed a child could be hung), or of a White…

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