[Updated September 16, 2013]
Flooding in Colorado is just the latest disaster covered by Google Maps. Whether there are storms gathering, wildfires burning, or a flu pandemic spreading, the search giant gathers and sorts incoming information to provide the latest coverage to interested readers. Not only that, Google offers tools like Person Finder to help you locate your loved ones in danger zones.
How does the Google Crisis Response team aggregate all that information – and how do they put it all together for users in an easy-to-follow format?
Colorado Flood Map
The map of flooding conditions in Colorado includes a list of warnings, potential shelters, and various other bits of emergency information to help those affected by the floods. Water levels are rising in many areas, and many people have been forced to rely on updates via Facebook and county websites. Google gathers information from authoritative sources, and puts it all in one place for residents to check through the tireless efforts of the Crisis Response team.
Kelly Mason of the Google Response Team tells Decoded Science, “ ...the CO flood maps include data layers from weather.gov, NOAA, Civil Air Patrol, and the Boulder Office of Emergency Management.”
Find a Person in the Flooded Areas
Google’s Person Finder application is also available if you need to find a friend or family member – how does this application work? News agencies and individuals upload available information to the crisis, and interested people check the resulting database for information on loved ones. In order to either upload or download information, however there must be a repository – or database – in common for all users. Google establishes a new database when disaster strikes, and keeps the database available for quite some time after the event has passed. This is clearly a crisis in need of a repository; Decoded Science has requested information regarding the repository for this crisis, and is awaiting word from Google at this time.
Kelly Mason, from the Google Response Team has provided a link to a missing person-finder for the Colorado flooding disaster. She says, “Currently, the resource available for locating missing loved ones in the wake of the floods is the Red Cross Safe & Well tool.”
Disaster Response via Data Mining & Authoritative Sources
For years, Google has been providing up-to-the-minute responses during natural disasters and health crisis situations. From the Swine Flu pandemic of 2009 to the epic flu season of 2012/2013, the search giant has been at the ready, with maps and updates for users.
How do these aggregate reports work? It depends on the type of crisis. As mentioned above, for a flood or natural disaster such as the Colorado floods, Google uses authoritative data sources to create their crisis map. For the flu maps, it all boils down to a process called data mining – and if there’s anything Google has a lot of, it’s data.
During disasters and epidemics, many of us run to the Internet to find the latest status of friends, family, or even our own area. “I have a fever, and a cough – is it the flu?” and “Is there a flu outbreak in New York?” Google automatically gathers and sorts all of that information to generate flu estimates. Once they sort the data, the engineers use it to generate the Flu Map you see during flu season.
In the case of a spreading epidemic or pandemic, that means showing the areas which have growing numbers of people with flu-like symptoms searching for relief online.
In the case of a natural disaster, it simply means aggregating data from a variety of authoritative data sources, and providing it for viewers.
Colorado Disaster Response: Google Maps & Social Good
In all cases, Google has access to a wide variety of online information and authoritative resources, as well as the search queries we use to find information online. This vast store of data allows the organization to not only respond to all kinds of disasters quickly, but to provide critical information when the nation needs it. During disasters such as this, every bit of information helps. As Kelly Mason tells us, “The teams use different approaches … both are examples of using technology and data to help serve a social good.”
Google.org. Google Crisis Response: A Google.Org Project. (2013). Accessed September 13, 2013.
Google.org. Google Person Finder: A Google.Org Project. (2013). Accessed September 13, 2013.
Google Project Hosting. GooglePersonFinder: A searchable missing person database based on PFIF, written in Python and hosted on App Engine. (2013). Accessed September 13, 2013.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated September 16, 2013 to include information received from Google and correct sourcing of the Google Map data.© Copyright 2013 Victoria Nicks, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science