Twitter, Facebook called on for higher purpose

Google.org project aims to help communities worldwide use Web and communication tech like Twitter to warn people of disease outbreaks and natural disasters.

Google.org's technology project to help save lives in the event of natural disasters or public health threats is set to launch Thursday.

The project, called Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disaster (InSTEDD), is a nonprofit organization that ambitiously aims to help communities around the world use Web and communications technology to identify and warn others of outbreaks like Avian flu or disasters like Hurricane Katrina. That technology, which will include social software Twitter and Facebook, will be used to coordinate rescue responses and help save lives, according to Eric Rasmussen, president and CEO of InSTEDD.

"We're not talking about pulling the red phone out of the bottom drawer here," said Rasmussen, a former adviser to U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, referring to Twitter and Facebook. "We're talking about using ubiquitous, free software that is repurposed when necessary to fit into a humanitarian need."

Google, through its charitable foundation Google.org, has invested $5 million in the project. InSTEDD has also received $1 million from the Rockefeller Foundation, and another six-figure amount from a foundation associated with venture capitalist and Google investor John Doerr, according to Rasmussen.

Dr. Larry Brilliant
Dr. Larry Brilliant Google

InSTEDD is the brainchild of Google.org's executive director, epidemiologist Dr. Larry Brilliant, who conceived of it nearly two years ago when he won the TED prize, a grant-making wish foundation that helps raise funds for humanitarian projects.

At the time, Brilliant said: "My dream for InSTEDD (a name that plays off the TED conference) is to fulfill the much-needed role of an independent agent bringing the technological, medical, and organizational skills necessary to help the humanitarian aid community accomplish (early detection of public health threats and disasters), and ultimately help them to make the world a safer place."

With the help of Google.org, the project turned into a nonprofit organization in May 2007. But it officially started in October when Rasmussen came on board and began hiring people and reaching out to the aid community. Now with nine employees, InSTEDD will launch its Web site on Thursday with early versions of open-source software that can be downloaded and tested.

One such application will be the so-called Twitter bot framework, which bridges the Web service and phones with a location-detection feature that can link to a layer in Google Earth, Rasmussen said. That way, for example, Rasmussen could send a message about a patient with untreated symptoms in Laos via SMS on his phone, which might only have one signal bar of service. That message could then be broadcast to anyone subscribed to his messages, including aid workers at UNICEF or InSTEDD's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., which could show his location and note on a Google Earth map.

"We can send an SMS message onto Google Earth in an emergency center, and it sees a dot with a color-coded response, with my name and date. Right underneath that, there's a button that says reply, and (aid workers can send a note that says) we have the resources you need 2 miles north...Suddenly there's a two-way conversation using nothing but a cell phone with one bar," he said, adding: "We've done this."

The application will also let people query for friends nearby via SMS, he said.

At its launch Thursday, the InSTEDD Web site will also feature blogs and a directory of aid workers, where professionals can register and regularly update their locations. That way, people can easily locate others in the event of a disaster.

Rasmussen said that the nonprofit is working with nations to develop the software among people who will use it in the field. One such project involves five countries in Southeast Asia. "We will eventually put the software out for release, free and open source," he said.

One other application it's working on is a modification of Facebook that would allow aid workers to see where all their nearby contacts are, as well as reach out to all their "friends of friends" in the humanitarian community in the case of a crisis.

"We've learned that going one layer in social networking is reliable (for finding helpful resources), but two layers isn't," Rasmussen said.

He added: "Social networking in the humanitarian space, that's something you're going to see."

 

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