Just about an hour after the magnitude 9 earthquake struck Japan on March 11, Google's Person Finder system was up and running, collecting records and enabling people to search online for those who might have been injured or were missing.
Thousands of records were uploaded on the first day as a massive tsunami followed the catastrophic quake. More than three weeks later, with a resulting nuclear plant crisis that is still unfolding, Google Person Finder is tracking about 607,000 records, a reflection of just how far-reaching the natural disaster has become.
Google said it was able to launch Person Finder quickly because it already had created similar tools, after the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, said Prem Ramaswami, a Google project manager.
"All these news agencies had their own private databases of missing-persons information, and there was the U.S. Department of State and a bunch of governmental organizations that had their own databases," Ramaswami said. "What we were able to do was create a hub for all of that information."
The initial push to build Google Person Finder came from Google.org's first engineer, Ka-Ping Yee, who worked as one of about 4,000 volunteers on the Katrina PeopleFinder Project in 2005, he said.
After Hurricane Katrina, multiple websites created similar people-searching tools but they failed to join their data together, resulting in people having to use multiple websites for information, Ramaswami said.
At Google, Yee and his colleagues saw an opportunity to use what had begun with Hurricane Katrina to help those dealing with Haiti and future natural disasters, he said.
"In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, we had engineers volunteering from Mountain View, Calif.; New York; Israel; Dublin; Zurich; and Bangalore, [India]," Ramaswami said.
"The thing we're good at is scaling; we can handle big traffic. So in basically 72 hours of mad global coding we got something together," he said.
Since then, Google has created a developer guide to get people started in helping build the technology and set up a running list of issues and feature requests that the company has received from those who use Person Finder.
"This isn't an area where you want to compete, this is an area where everyone should have the same database and be working together," Ramaswami said. Since Haiti's earthquake, Google.org's Crisis Response Team (which Google employees join and leave as needed) has launched Person Finder in various languages for the Chile earthquake in February 2010, the Qinghai earthquake in China in April 2010, the Pakistan floods in July and in February of this year, the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.
About a week before Japan's earthquake struck, Ramaswami and a handful of Google.org engineers spent about five days in Christchurch to see firsthand how people were using crisis response tools.
"The reason why the Christchurch earthquake was so interesting was that New Zealand has about 75% Internet penetration," Ramaswami said. "When everything else is down, when even SMS texts took about five hours to get out and SMS messages even got lost, the Internet there still functioned and worked, which isn't the case in other countries."
The Christchurch earthquake resulted in several new tools — such as the ability to report spam and delete records and set up email subscriptions to the database — which have been very useful for Person Finder in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake and tsunami, he said.
The Japan team has really taken off with Person Finder in unique ways, such as its integration of Japanese characters and data from local cellphone providers, he said.
"The local telcos, telecommunications companies, actually send SMS messages to their customers and ask if they are OK, and we worked with the telcos and the government to integrate that data into Person Finder the right way," Ramaswami said.
For the Japan disasters, Person Finder had over 30 million page views in the first 48 hours, he said.
Google employees in Japan have used other company services to help increase Person Finder's capabilities, namely Picasa, he said.
The Google Japan team set up http://www.goo.gl/ganbare where people in Japan can submit photos and "then we translate the information on the photos and get that information into Person Finder," Ramaswami said.
"There are people who are in the shelters and are OK and they may not be able to keep electronic records, so here's a solution to that problem," he said. "And to sift through every record posted in this photo album and enter in this data by hand, correctly, that's a big effort.... I can't speak proudly enough of that kind of work."