Online Search and Rescue  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   October/November 2005

Online Search and Rescue   

Efforts to reunite Katrina’s victims were well-intentioned but chaotic.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


Crisis response is never wholly efficient because much of it is spontaneous and instinctual. That's why many people chose to send clothes, diapers and food to Hurricane Katrina victims instead of the cash that relief agencies requested. It's also why, when the scope of the missing persons situation became clear, Web programmers around the country immediately and independently leapt into action. But the instinctive response isn't always the best.

The online effort to reunite missing Katrina victims with their loved ones is a story of great generosity, noble intentions and a good deal of success. It's also a story of fractured information, lack of planning and the famously self-correcting nature of the Internet.

Two weeks after the hurricane hit New Orleans August 29, more than 60 bulletin boards had been set up to help locate missing people. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's FEMA.gov listed more than 20 of them, including sites run by the Red Cross, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Salvation Army and the National Next of Kin Registry.

There were several sites run by news outlets, including CNN; MSNBC; New Orleans' Times-Picayune, WWL-TV and WDSU-TV; Biloxi's Sun Herald; the Houston Chronicle; the Weather Channel; and even the BBC. Those were outnumbered by Internet-only operations such as Craigslist and a spate of sites launched by individuals who wanted to help. There were easily hundreds of thousands of messages across the boards.

Most sites didn't have a way to track successful connections, so we'll never know exactly how many people were found through the Web---but there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that they worked. One site that kept track, Operation Get-In-Touch, claimed to have reunited 1,152 evacuees with their loved ones through September 12.

Still, the online effort wasn't a home run. It was splintered and maddeningly redundant. News reports described desperate searchers submitting loved ones' names to dozens of sites and slogging through countless lists and databases.

A September 7 Associated Press article listed some of the frustrations volunteers encountered. Registering a missing person on multiple sites was tedious. Some sites were searchable; others weren't even alphabetized. Some were set up specifically to find missing people, with photos and form fields for personal characteristics; others were crudely repurposed discussion boards. As Pew Internet and American Life Director Lee Rainee told the AP, "at some point it's terribly useful to have a centralized, responsible, trusted clearinghouse."

Terribly useful, yes---but also terribly difficult. The idea contradicts the decentralized, messy nature of the Internet. It challenges the human impulse to pitch in and the nature of news companies to compete rather than collaborate. Not to mention the administrative coordination and communication effort required to establish a centralized system. Given enough resources, an organization like the Red Cross might be up to the task, but the federal government certainly doesn't seem to be.

To a degree, the Internet community responded to the problem. By the week after the hurricane, Yahoo! and Lycos had set up search engines that would scan about a dozen different missing person sites simultaneously. On September 3, the Katrina PeopleFinder Project was launched by a group of programmers---several of whom had worked on a similar effort after the December 2004 tsunami---to collect data from as many different boards as possible and put them in a central repository that could be matched with people registered by the Red Cross and survivor shelters. By September 10, more than 2,000 volunteers across the country were helping with the data entry project.

Unfortunately, most of the news sites mentioned above didn't offer prominent links to the PeopleFinder Project or the other aggregation sites, instead promoting their own message boards almost exclusively. Maybe they were too overwhelmed to think of it, or maybe they didn't know about them.

As government agencies and news organizations delve into the long catalog of things that should have been done differently, the online missing persons effort should be on the list. There may not be a completely centralized system in the near future, but the federal government could at least choose one and endorse it immediately. That might quell some of the well-intentioned but poorly executed efforts that spring up in a vacuum.

Meanwhile, newsrooms need a plan for handling the next large missing persons situation. If a news site intends to offer its own locator tool, it should be specifically designed for that purpose. It should be searchable with well-conceived data fields and ideally should have a way of alerting people when loved ones are found. Web managers who don't have the resources to build a robust application should scour the Web for reliable sites that already perform the service and should link to those instead. In all cases, sites should link to as many other missing persons sites as possible.

In most circumstances---especially where major news events are concerned---the diverse, spontaneous nature of the Internet is its greatest quality. At other times, collaboration and advance planning could save the day.

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