That most basic of communication needs — reuniting with loved ones — has been addressed by a variety of digital projects. For example, Facebook emerged as a hub for this type of information within hours of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007.

Because this need is so common in the wake of a disaster, the idea for a person finder tool and open database has come up many times. The joint efforts to consolidate projects and improve the application with each major disaster offers a positive example of how an open crisis technology project can benefit from the sporadic but potent waves of attention that follow crises.

The People Finder project is one of the earliest examples of participatory aid. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, dozens of technologists enabled 4,000 volunteers to enter 90,000 records. In the process, the group created the People Finder Interchange Format, itself an early successful example of open standards in the crisis response space. Google developer Ka-Ping Yee has been instrumental in creating and maintaining the XML standard.

Figure 3.6: The original Google Person Finder application


Following the earthquake in Haiti, there were again many duplicate efforts to help people locate one another. New York Times technology columnist David Pogue ran an email from Chris Csikszentmihalyi, then director of MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media encouraging news companies to centralize their efforts with Google’s embeddable person finder widget rather than continue to silo data across efforts. Thousands of entries collected via a CrisisCamp hackathon project were merged with Google’s Person Finder and embeddable widget, which relies on the PFIF format. The Person Finder project has been open-sourced and used following earthquakes in Chile, Yushu, and Japan.

A similar project is Refugees United’s web and mobile reunification search tools, built by Tomas A. Krag. The software is designed to reunite some of the world’s 40 million refugees, as opposed to Google Person Finder’s databases of immediate crisis survivors. This database also differs from Google Person Finder in that it does not expose personally identifiable information.

Like the Basic Aid projects, these projects were both developed by professional software engineers producing megawork, but the databases that drive them are eventually populated by the crowdsourced reporting of individuals’ location and status. Formal aid actors may benefit from this information, but the primary audience is to help the affected population itself find information about loved ones.