Recap: May Girl Geek Dinner with Dr. Alice Bonhomme-Biais

A year after we gathered at the Google offices in Kitchener for our inaugural Girl Geek Dinner, last night we returned for the final Dinner until the fall. After some noshing, courtesy of Little Mushroom Catering and I Heart Cupcakes, and networking, courtesy of the large crowd, it was time to head upstairs for the main event.

Alice Bonhomme-BiaisIn January of 2010, Google.org existed, and Alice was working for Google, but the Crisis Response group did not yet exist. It was that month that the earthquake in Haiti happened, a place where Alice has close ties through family and friends.

She found herself in a frustrated “What can I do?” state, given that, professionally, she spent her days in front of a laptop, and meanwhile Haiti’s immediate needs all seemed to require people on the ground in the country, providing very tangible things for an overwhelming number of needs.

But through helping a friend in Haiti communicate with his aunt outside the country, letting her know how the family was and the state of things, the ball got rolling. Google created a resource page with emergency information, and created Person Finder, enabling those looking for news on loved ones, and those in crisis zones to connect. People could report on their own or others’ status, or use “last known” information if people were still unaccounted for.

Google Maps were also put to sophisticated use, incorporating satellite imagery (nothing better for seeing how a refugee camp is growing in an abandoned golf course), infrastructure data (these roads are passable, these bridges are gone), and information like the location of devastation, refugee camps, functional electrical grids, etc. Think of how handy Google Maps is with traffic data turned on is. Now think of that on steroids for all the types of data needed to launch disaster response and rebuilding efforts. This data is particularly valuable in areas of the world where maps and addresses can be somewhat “fluid”. (To this end, sometimes there is strong reliance on ex-pats for translation services, provision of local knowledge, etc.)

Also consider that after disasters, communications links are often very limited. There may be no landline or cellular telephone access, but a thread of internet connection with the world may still remain active. Or vice versa. (It was possible for some to send their location to rescuers via SMS, a story I’d heard previously from a US military officer who’d been stationed in Haiti after the quake.)

Note as well that all these different data tend to come from various agencies and organizations, and are often in disparate formats, so very fast and extensive work was and is required from Google engineers to standardize it. As Alice noted, tools used during times of crisis need to be simple, use standards, and be open to allow for rapid collaboration (both on the engineering and consumer sides).

Crisis Response has since grown, driven by other major events around the world since January 2010. Earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand, and Indonesia; a volcano eruption in Iceland; flooding in Thailand, Pakistan, and Australia; the Japanese tsunami; tornados in the midwestern US; and a host of other disasters around the world. They can’t take on every big event, but they have assisted with at least 10 since the Haiti earthquake.

Next time a disaster strikes, you may well see Person Finder displayed on Google’s homepage. (The registries do eventually expire.) Alice made the very interesting point that in times of crisis, people do what they know. It is not a time for learning (literally, the brain is incapable of higher function under great stress), and so the tools people already use must be there and able to help. And Google offers a very well known, broad, and powerful set of tools for day to day use. (Imagine no Gmail, no Google Maps, no Chrome, no Google Docs, no YouTube…)

Alice’s team has also built Public Alerts (more info here) so you can find out, as Alice humorously noted, whether it’s a good idea to go out for pizza or not. Public Alerts are another great example of collaboration with a variety of agencies to help keep people safe and informed.

Alice also mentioned a number of other groups working in crisis response, like Random Hacks of Kindness, Ushahidi, and Crisis Commons, for those inclined to investigate or pitch in.

And with that, and a few swag giveaways, we adjourned to the Firkin for continued conversation. Many thanks to Alice and her husband for making the trek up from New York to join us, and for a fascinating, enlightening, and inspiring presentation.

We must also wish a hearty Bon Voyage to Cate, one of our intrepid founders, as she jets off to new adventures in Sydney, Australia later this summer.

We are now adjourned until the fall, but already have some excellent speakers lined up, starting in September. Stay tuned!

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