Google, Twitter Are Big Help During Emergencies; Verizon, Not So Much

earthquake New Zealand Twitter monitorGoogle and Twitter have been vital tools in helping New Zealand deal with a disastrous earthquake. Verizon, meanwhile, has been in the news for dropping tens of thousands of 911 calls during a serious snowstorm. This is the tale of three companies—for some it's been the best of times, while for others, the worst (sorry, Dickens).

New Zealand's city of Christchurch was hit by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake yesterday, with a shallow epicenter near the city's center—amid reports about widespread damage to buildings, there's news that over 60 people are dead with "hundreds" of people trapped.

The quake is trending on Twitter—and Twitter is acting as a primary vehicle for sharing news about the quake aftermath across New Zealand, with re-tweeted information about news reports from various mainstream media and people reporting on-scene information. The use of hashtags, which are often abused or leveraged to make jokes in tweets, seems to be particularly central to Twitter's role in the quake clean-up, and people seem to be really sticking to a couple of relevant tags: #EQNZ for general expressions of sympathy and news updates, and #EQNZconnect for people trying to find out information about those living in the quake zone. A site called #EQNZ.co.nz was put together very quickly to help people by aggregating the tweets in one location.

There are also continuing tweet updates about the availability of telecoms (vital for sharing news in real-time) and local cell network Vodafone has tweeted a request to keep usage of cell phones to minimum, in order to keep lines free for emergency uses—short calls and SMSs are preferred.

Meanwhile Google has rushed out a person finder application that allows users to find people they're concerned about, and where people who know about someone's situation can share that with the Net. Effectively it's a one-stop, crowdsourced instant social network that has just enough information to let loved ones know that their relatives and friends are safe and sound, or whether the authorities should be alerted to their absence.

Google Person Finder

These reactions are pretty high-tech, and web-centric: The fact that Vodafone is requesting people stay off the cell phone grid is also a sign that information and discussion about the disaster is being pushed off everyone's favorite data channel (the phone air waves) and onto the Web. This highlights the utility of Twitter, Facebook and web services like Google as fast, centralized data-sharing hubs that can collate (and make searchable) information on a current affair faster than a traditional news channel can. It has echoes of how technology was used in Egypt to mobilize anti-government protests. The situation also makes good sense since New Zealand is among the top 10 nations in the world when it comes to Internet penetration—with over 85% of the nation connected online (compared to the U.S.'s 77%).

And then there's Verizon. The phone giant is currently the subject of an FCC investigation over allegations the network dropped a "truly alarming" number of 911 emergency calls from cell phones during the terrible January 26th snowstorm that ravaged the East Coast of the U.S.

Apparently tens of thousands of 911 calls may have been dropped, or failed to connect—potentially wrecking people's chances of getting timely emergency assistance. The FCC is concerned not only about this event, but also that the situation may be endemic across Verizon's networks.

With millions of new iPhone owners expected to join Verizon over the coming months, bringing their well known data burden (ably demonstrated by AT&T's iPhone woes) the FCC may have a point. Verizon's grid is only going to suffer more strain, and seeing how mobile calls and, particularly, mobile data are assuming an ever-more important role in human emergencies, it's vital that the U.S.'s biggest carrier is up to the challenge.

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