Saving lives from behind the screen

Google Australia engineer and Crisis Response team member Anthony Baxter. Brick Township, New Jersey, before and after Sandy.

Seaside, New Jersey, before and after Sandy.

Ocean City, Maryland, before and after.

Google’s crisis map for Hurricane Sandy showed warning information, road closures, traffic congestion details, fuel inventory status and more.

New York City borough Staten Island before, left, and after Sandy hit.

One of Google’s first disaster relief efforts was during the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria.

 Anthony Baxter is a geek whose tech prowess has almost certainly saved lives.

Part of Google’s Crisis Response Team, the Sydney-based engineer has been integral in disseminating crucial information about events such as Hurricane Sandy, the Black Saturday bushfires and Cyclone Yasi.

Baxter has barely slept for the past week and his life for several years has lurched from one disaster to another. But he says he’s never felt more exhilarated or professionally satisfied.

While Google’s disaster relief efforts are all non-profit, they fit perfectly with the company’s mission to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.

“If we’re going to organise the world’s information, then information that saves people’s lives … that pretty much goes to the top of my list of information that’s useful to organise,” he said in a phone interview.

“[Sandy] has been pretty much my entire life for the last week-and-a-half, two weeks.”

Days before Sandy struck the US east coast on October 29, causing flooding, power outages and destruction from Manhattan to the Jersey Shore, Google launched a “crisis map” with key information about evacuation zones, roadworks, power outages, fuel inventory, food distribution points, traffic conditions, shelters and other useful information from emergency authorities, non-profits and public transport bodies.

In the aftermath, Google has helped relief agencies to update the maps with details on where volunteers or donations are most required. As with previous disasters, Google was quick to update its satellite imagery with before-and-after shots to show the scale of the destruction.

It is a process the company has been refining since Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires in February 2009. The formal Crisis Response team was set up in early 2010 after the devastating Haiti earthquake and consists of various Googlers dotted around the world, with Baxter working alone in Australia.

“It started off with us doing it in Australia with the bushfires and the floods, and it became very apparent very quickly how useful this was to be able to pull all these different information sources on to a single map, rather than having people have to go to four or five different websites to see what’s going on,” he said.

“We’re not emergency professionals. What we’re good at is getting information on to a map and making it usable and useful by getting it out to lots of people.”

Technology is playing an increasingly important role in disseminating information during disasters. Photo-sharing app Instagram has reported that Sandy was its “biggest event” ever with more than 800,000 photos tagged with the hashtag #Sandy last week.

Twitter has also played a crucial part in enabling grassroots sharing of information, supplies and help, despite reports of fake photos and false information distributed by trolls.

On a Google Hangout during a media event in Sydney on Monday, The New York Times’ social media editor Lexi Mainland said information was changing so quickly that social media and mobile publishing became just as vital as the newspaper’s homepage.

Baxter, 42, is originally from Victoria, but was living in Sydney when the Black Saturday fires struck in his home state. He initially struggled to figure out whether his brother was safe, because when the official websites weren’t buckling under the load of visitors, the affected towns listed did not show any geographical perspective as to how close the fires were to his brother in the outer Melbourne suburb of Packenham. That inspired him to round up help from fellow Googlers.

In addition to the maps, Google’s crisis response team also selectively deploys its “Person Finder” and “Resource Finder” to aid collaboration among crisis responders and victims.

Person Finder proved useful in the aftermath of the recent Christchurch earthquake and Japan tsunami.

“If you can put something online that people can look at, it means they’re not going to call [the emergency number] just for information when they don’t need to, which means the people who do need to ring get through much faster,” Baxter said.

“The feedback we’re getting from people is pretty much, ‘thank you . . . this is just what I needed’. That’s a reward that you can’t really buy. Making such a huge difference to so many people around the world is just huge and fantastic.”

Separately, Google has just launched Google Earth Outreach, its mapping tool for non-profits, in Australia and New Zealand (video). Macquarie University will use it to monitor coral reef health, while the CSIRO has adopted it for a project on understanding vegetation cover of sensitive areas. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy is mapping its own efforts, including a fire management project in the Kimberley and maps of its wildlife sanctuaries.

The tool has been used internationally to show forest removal in the Amazon and for crisis response during Hurricane Katrina.

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