Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Empowering Volunteer Knowledge: Disaster Wikis

When a disaster like Katrina hits an area with complete disruption of normal lives, there are fundamental questions to be answered requiring massive amounts of information from random sources. The Web with its infrastructure is well suited to sending messages, through emails, forums and blogging. But seeking bits of information across multiple sources, let alone linking them up has been difficult, if not impossible. Yet in a matter of days, wiki technology has been harnessed to provide content solutions which capture the knowledge base sought by victims of the hurricane.

As reported in Wired, one project is Scipionus.com which combines Wiki technology with Google Maps to provide information about property damage, a vital interest to the residents of the city trying to determine whether they will have homes to return to. Anyone with information to share can contribute to the site by posting information about conditions at specific geographic sites marked by pins, along with dates. Interestingly, the biggest challenge is keeping the information postings to actual observations, rather than questions about conditions and messages for missing people.

Reported on my local San Francisco television, KTVU, yet another project is KatrinaList.net, is designed to link up missing persons and reestablish communication. The challenge was to create and populate the wiki with all the content contained in other missing persons databases, such as nola.com and CraigsList , where messages could be easily added, but were difficult to search. The PeopleFinderVolunteer project solicited volunteers to "claim" chunks of these databases to put into the wiki, matching names reported missing with "found" reports. This has been a truly impressive, well organized effort, with the end result being successfully linked friends and relatives. Disaster planners, take note--Katrina may be the event that marks a coming of age for wiki technology....and since San Francisco expects a major earthquake to occur again, planning is a major concern for those of us who live in the Bay area.
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