Systems often fail us, says Google Crisis Response software engineering manager Mor Schlesinger, even in times of emergencies when we are most in need of relevant data.
"Our mission is to organize the world's information to make it universally accessible," Schlesinger notes. "The times when people need this information the most is in times of crisis."
Google.org, the company's nonprofit arm, has been working with other nonprofit innovators to help them achieve their goals through a "unique blend of support that includes funding, tools, and volunteers from around Google". Launched in 2005, Google.org says the first question it asks itself is: "How can we bring the best of Google to power their work and accelerate their progress?"
Keeping this in mind, Google.org created the Crisis Response team, which launches, tests and develops a number of disaster information services such as Person Finder, SOS Alerts and Public Alerts.
Person Finder "facilitates shared missing persons information to help keep people up to date on safety status after a crisis". The service was first trialed during the 2010 Haiti earthquake where it was used along with Google Earth by the International Medical Corps and Doctors Without Borders to track missing individuals and response efforts.
SOS Alerts collates data from Google Maps, Google Searches and other external partners during and after an emergency, giving users the latest information regarding a number of disaster scenarios.
Public Alerts is a "type of online Emergency Broadcasting System, gathering data and pushing that emergency content to maps, search and elsewhere". The interactive map displays information regarding all the natural disasters Google is currently aware of with up-to-the-moment details regarding the crisis in question, such as wind speed or flood warnings. It currently covers 12 countries and the company said it has plans to expand the service to new territories.
Google is not the only tech company working on using its position as a hub for information and data to help in times of crisis. Facebook launched its own Crisis Response hub in September 2017. Its primary service, the Safety Check, has been used regularly, not only in time of natural disasters, but also through other emergency situations such as the November 2015 Paris attacks.
In the Twittersphere, pages such as @LastQuake functions as an "independent scientific organization and provider of real-time earthquake info". It tracks earthquakes through user tweets and can be an invaluable resource to people who live in areas which experience a lot of seismic activity.
Google Crisis Map
Google, however, is positioning itself as more of a public utility, especially through services such as the Crisis Map. And the value of what it has created will likely become more vital, especially with the vast majority of scientific reports pointing toward a greater prevalence of extreme weather situations due to climate change.
"Part of our paying it forward is to try and tackle these problems," says Schlesinger. "We're doing this because we feel this is the right thing to do."
"Telling you that the flood is coming is great, but hopefully we're providing a very simple way to understand what is going on and the information needed to make a decision."