Tech blog

Lost and found

The armed forces have done a stellar job rescuing people affected by the floods in Uttarkhand. With a little help from technology, it will be much easier to unite the separated with their families. Google’s Person Finder is a customised solution to find people lost during a disaster. The website offers two kinds of services: You can upload information about a person, who you have found, and who has been separated from his kin. Or , you can post information about someone you have been separated from.

On the face of it, this seems like a nice service; but there are a few details that need to be addressed first. For starters, the site needs to be publicised enough for people to start using it. Such services work best where there is enough internet penetration and people are savvy enough to use them. A little peek into the history of Person Finder should validate this train of thought. Person Finder drew inspiration from several websites that built lost-person databases to help those affected by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in the US. The service’s FAQ states that the idea behind Person Finder was to integrate these databases so that people could search a larger database and get results in a common format. The first Person Finder came in the wake of the catastrophe that was the Haiti earthquake in 2010. But little came out of that effort as not many people had heard about it and even if they did, they might not have had the means to access to it, thanks to lack of cyber infrastructure.

Now take a look at Uttarakhand and those stuck there. Not many there will have internet access. Those who have will try to log on via their mobile devices. Now consider the number of mobile towers rendered out of service by the calamity, and the prospect of an online sojourn seems seriously remote.

And that’s where the bottom line can be derived from: A well-intentioned service may go a-begging for want of those who can make use of it, simply because of the technological divide that separates the user from the service. Food for thought for the policy makers in charge of disaster management here. They need to focus on building strong communication infrastructure that will survive catastrophe in disaster-prone areas. That would not only help in rescue operations, but later in bringing together separated families as well.

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