At his desk at the University of Maryland, Professor Hiroyuki Iseki has a Google map of post-earthquake Japan up on his screen. This is not just any map. One of its features is the ability to track car locations by GPS to show whether or not a road is blocked.
To do this, Iseki and his colleagues mined data from governments, businesses, and even Google Docs, to create a single digital source for that kind of information.
The roadblock locations are just the beginning of what Iseki and colleagues from California, Arizona, Germany and Japan compiled into what's known as a GIS map or geographic information system map. They were brought together by GIScorps, an organization of volunteers in the Geographic Information System field. They scoured the Internet for all kinds of data: general stuff, like what's the population, and more specific stuff, like where cellphones are working or where the refugees are.
And then they got really useful information from individuals organizing on their own and from volunteers via Twitter and Google Docs. Iseki says there were able to locate public phones, charging stations, food supplies, water distribution centers and locations accepting evacuees. He says the data comes from people driving in the field, who then use smart phones to upload information to the Internet.
While it might seem like a crisis worker's dream, the map was not widely used by refugees or responders in Japan. It's an experiment -- an attempt to show what emergency response might look like in the future. Heather Blanchard is co-founder of Crisis Commons, a group she calls a "volunteer technology community." At the behest of the United Nations Commission for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs, her group commissioned the map Iseki worked on.
"Now we can actually say, 'Here's the data people were looking for in Japan.' So maybe the city of Houston may want to consider that, or the city of San Francisco," she says.
Ideally, Blanchard says, responders could -- and sometimes do -- get images and location data even from social media such as Flickr or Facebook.
But not all data is easy to get. Information is a commodity and not everyone wants to share it -- either for personal or business reasons. Nor is information always in the same format or units across countries. But problems aside, the first step is knowing what information is useful.
"If you prepare now today, then in the future we may be able to respond faster and make better decisions," Blanchard says.
Wendy Harman, head of Social Media for the Red Cross, says her organization is going digital, with volunteers doing reconnaissance via smartphone and pda. But she says emergency responders haven't quite yet fully integrated with the kind of rapidly evolving open-source information systems like Iseki's map.
"I think we're getting pretty close, but now we're starting to see that this kind of map is cropping up multiple times over the course of one disaster situation," Harman says. "So...it's determining who to pay attention to and which data can be verified –- I think that's a really big issue -- and what does it tell us and what is it that we really need to know?"
But it's only a matter of time. As Harman says, just take one look at this map and you know it's incredibly useful.