[update: there's a great new post on worldchanging.com about this. -cb ]
I spent some time today searching for sailboats in satellite imagery, looking for signs of computer scientist Jim Gray. The story is covered here.
The significance of using this technology to do this work is obvious. Using satellite imagery to find a particular lost person is a dramatic, symbolic moment indicating some maturation of the approach — I can only hope that it will be applied on a larger scale in the coming years.
Likewise I was so deeply impressed by the Katrina PeopleFinder project, and I am eager to see extensions of this type of "humanitarian-tech" project. It just seems that there are so many people who are willing to help do data entry or pattern recognition from their home as volunteers ... not to mention the 34,153 geek-brain-hours wasted on programming .ASP shopping carts or similar byte-drivel every day ...
And, without being critical of the people involved in setting this up (seriously, cheers to those involved in getting this going!) I think it is interesting to note that the person we are looking for is a famed computer scientist. Besides the contextual irony — he had a lot to do with making this search possible — we should be conscious of the need to broaden our collective altruism. There are so many people that right now could benefit from having a project dedicated to analyzing their needs from above. They just don't make the newspaper when they disappear.
Ethan Zuckerman is one of the best bloggers in the world; he must get paid by Harvard to do it, or something. (He does.)
His musing last week on the ICT/geek community's response to the Katrina relief effort is a fascinating look at how we can potentially respond with the full weight of technology's resources.
Most notably, Ethan has been recently instrumental in organizing and developing the Katrina Peoplefinder database (in record time, no less), which exceeded 100,000 entries in the first week of September. I think that this is, for once, an example of how activism in a purely digital sense can in fact be utterly essential, not a trival, isolated indulgence.
Please Note: This database (at http://www.katrinalist.com) still has a growing amount of data; you can still volunteer to enter data remotely (from anywhere in the world, in your pajamas, at The Katrina Peoplefinder Wiki.
What is amazing is that this activism has been the work of a very loosely organized group of more than 2,000 people all over the world. The work done by organizers was largely administrative - they assigned various "chunks" of data from fragmented bulletin boards to volunteers who put standardized information into a central database. This I think, was impressively smart, and it needs to be replicated in many other contexts, present and future.
And I believe that the folks involved in the development of the project are acutely aware of this need, and they are taking admirable leadership roles. Online code guru Dave Weiner wrote, for example, about the need of a standardized, open, XML format for transmitting data about missing people. A day later, there it was, the People Finder Interchange Format.
These developments have rediscovered the power of existing technologies. Innovative uses of our everyday-geek tools - including VOIP phones, podcasts, wikis, weblogs, SMS text messages and databases - can affect change in the world. Really, they can. But in the highly developed world we are accustomed to treating them as though they were simply luxuries, toys. I commend the folks who have done so much in the last few weeks toward making them real, social tools.
Ethan Zuckerman's fascinating post reviewing the online post-Katrina relief effort is here:
…My heart’s in Accra: Recovery 2.0 - thoughts on what worked and failed on PeopleFinder so far
Andy Carvin, director of the Digital Divide Network, recently posted a fascinating, heartbreaking perspective just how much damage has been done. He found the images at a strange condo site, condobuzz.com. The images are overlays of the flooding with other metropolitan areas. (Note this is just the flooding. The hurricane damages, if in the midwest, would reach from Detroit to Chicago.) Andy's excellent, popular, collaborative Katrina blog is here:
Below are Washington and Winston-Salem, NC. (My native state.) Click to enlarge.
Kathyn Cramer, based in New York, is doing great work with Google maps. The following information is quoted from her blog.
Step 1: Go to Google Maps and enter the address. Click on the button that says "Hybrid" on the upper right. You will get an image with a speech ballon pointing to a thumbtack showing the location of the address on the satellite photo. [IMPORTANT UPDATE: Bless their hearts, Google Maps has added a "KATRINA" button to New Orleans areas searches, so they have automated some of the process I describe here! Yee haw!]
Step 2: Click up and down the vertical ladder-like bar to see the image at various scales until you feel you can find the place on a satellite image.
Step 3: Compare your image to this superimposition of the FEMA flood map on a New Orleans satellite photo, created by the Google Earth Current Events Community. Here is a small version. Click on it for a much bigger picture.
If the address you are checking is fairly centrally located, you can also check your address image against the DigitalGlobe satellite picture of the flooding.
For more detailed instructions, visit her blog.