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Red Cross moves discussions online

The organization will use software from ChatSpace to let people communicate with Red Cross employees over the Web--a service the group found effective after the World Trade Center attacks.

The American Red Cross is going interactive.

The humanitarian relief organization said Thursday that it will use software from ChatSpace to let people communicate with Red Cross employees over the Web--a service the group tested and found effective after the World Trade Center attacks.

After the Sept. 11 disaster, the Red Cross used ChatSpace's technology to connect with people seeking answers to questions about the events and a forum for expressing grief. The Red Cross said that more than 600 people used the service in the six weeks it was running.

The Red Cross hopes to set up the technology on its youth services page by March to connect volunteers with coordinators and eventually the public.

"It's really reaching new audiences, especially with youth--as we see our need for bringing more and more youth into the organization to be the future of the organization," said Phil Zepeda, director of online media at the Red Cross. "Obviously, any online or Internet capacity or Internet tool is going to help us do something like this, so ChatSpace is a great option."

The announcement comes as the Web continues to play an increasingly significant role in relief efforts. During the Sept. 11 tragedy, people who were unable to connect via wireless and landline phones turned to the Web to communicate with their families by posting messages on Web sites, e-mailing, and signing on to instant chat services. The Web has also become a popular medium for donations. Following the terrorist attacks, the Red Cross said, the Internet brought in about a third of the $102 million it received in donations.

"Due to the unfortunate events of Sept. 11, we've seen a lot of charity sites move online--or if not already online, expand their online presence," said Patrick Thomas, an Internet analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings. Chat rooms are "definitely a beneficial thing when it comes to community sites. And because of that nature, (the Red Cross and ChatSpace are) definitely a perfect fit."

Carlsbad, Calif.-based ChatSpace provides chat rooms, instant messaging and other services. People can communicate in multiple languages on a variety of devices such as PCs, interactive TV consoles, personal digital assistants and cell phones. The company said the software allows organizations to develop discussion topics and create a forum moderated by employees.

"As we understand working with the Red Cross, nothing is more important to them than to be able to react swiftly and quickly to disasters," said ChatSpace Chief Executive Eric Olinger. ChatSpace "has really proven itself to them as a quick response tool that is accessible, easy for people to use and understand, and very flexible to meet real-time requirements for disaster relief."