advertisement Responds to Japanese Disaster With Altruistic Innovation

A new crowd-sourced person finder/information gathering app called has arrived. In the aftermath of recent global disasters, several similar systems have been created, suggesting a new trend in altruistic tech.



A new crowd-sourced person finder/information gathering app called has arrived. In the aftermath of recent global disasters, several similar systems have been created, suggesting a new trend in altruistic tech.

Within just a handful of hours of the Japanese earthquake, Google released a new edition of its person finder app dedicated to helping Japan’s citizens locate each other amid the chaos. It was powerful, if limited, and it came with an API to let other developers access some of its powers. That’s exactly what the Red Helmets Foundation, dedicated to helping victims of natural disasters, has just done with its website–an interactive, media-heavy, crowd-sourced person finder application that leverages Google’s code to create a very sophisticated system to help locate missing persons. 

The site offers the chance to browse through missing persons data in the hope you can identify someone, add information to a missing person’s profile, or upload photos or video that may help searchers identify particular people in the scene. If you sign up to the site, you can flag particular victims and receive alerts if there’s new information on their profile.

Not only is it a smart use of Google’s tech, it’s powerful enough that it has its own API, so that still more third-party coders can write cleverer apps that using it as a base. The idea is that after the Japanese disaster, the core offering of can be applied whenever another tragedy occurs–instead of having to be crafted from scratch.



Aiming to add real human faces in video format to help disconnected people in Japan find each other, or for relatives abroad to locate news of their loved ones (who may be far from reliable Net access), YouTube launched its own dedicated Missing Person Finder channel to host video relating to the ongoing disaster.

The notion is that people in shelters in the affected areas of Japan can record a message saying they’re okay, or relay information about friends or colleagues, tag the posts accordingly so they’re searchable, and upload them to the special channel. Here Google’s acting as a clearing house for up-to-the-moment video messages, helping people around the world get a more personal–and free–sense of contact with people they know in Japan, and leveraging all of Google’s video hosting and search skills to make it a powerful resource.

Google’s 20% time

Late last week, Google revealed that many of its employees are devoting their “20% time” to trying to come up with technical solutions to aid survivors in Japan. Google famously offers this chance for all its staff to pursue their own projects, free of targets and over-scrutiny. The hope is that engineers’ creative urges will remain satisfied–and in the meantime, it can’t hurt if they dream up true innovations to potentially earn Google a pile of money. 


Seeing the unfolding natural and technological disaster in Japan has apparently spurred many Google staff to refocus their thinking, and Google acknowledges that staff in Japan have been stepping well over the 20% boundary–something the company openly supported. 

Open sourcing patents

We already wrote about innovative reactor designs that could avert a crisis in future Japan-like scenarios, but there’s still a need to deal with the current failed nuclear power stations in Fukushima–so the Global Innovation Commons has set up a clearing house for open-source patents and innovations that could aid in the cooldown and cleanup of Japan’s damaged reactors. The hope is that entrepreneurs and scientists could comb through this rich vein of data and dream up innovations that could be immediately of use, or prevent catastrophes in the future.

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