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Google Tells Feds How to Get Emergency Info to the Top of Search Results

Virginia Mayo/AP

Offering relevant information in open, machine-readable formats may be the most important thing government can do to keep the public informed during a natural disaster, Google and other technology leaders told members of Congress Tuesday.

When a natural disaster such as 2012’s Hurricane Sandy hits, federal, state and local government agencies are often the best source for trusted information about the storm’s path or the location of shelters and other services. People in the path of those storms, however, are much more likely to seek information on Google and other private sector platforms.

Google received about 15 million queries for Sandy-related information in the days before, during and after the storm, Matthew Stepka, vice president of the tech giant’s social impact arm Google.org told members of the House Homeland Security Committee’s panel on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications.

That compares with about 740,000 visitors to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Sandy pages, 71,000 visitors to the main governmentwide Sandy page at USA.gov and about 2.8 million visitors to a governmentwide widget that directed visitors to five main lines of government information about Sandy, according to a lessons learned report on the superstorm and social media released by the Homeland Security Department last week.

If agencies supply emergency information using open data standards, Google can highlight that information and boost it to the top of its search queue, Stepka said. When agencies release information in non-machine readable formats such as PDFs, Google and other companies can lose vital minutes and waste man hours unlocking that information to make it available by search, he said.

During Sandy and previous disasters, Google has frequently pulled vital emergency information into boxes at the top of the page when users search related terms. It has also launched crisis maps and other tools to help pass information to people and organizations on the ground.

Stepka praised the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday for making its meteorological information and images open and accessible during Sandy.

He also applauded a new open data policy and executive order signed by President Obama in May, which requires agencies to make as much of their information as possible open to the public in machine-readable formats. A machine-readable format means external websites and mobile apps can automatically digest the information and deliver relevant results based on search queries, a person’s location or other factors.

In many cases, releasing information rapidly in open formats can be more important than ensuring that information’s accuracy, said Jason Payne, philanthropy engineering team lead for Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley data analysis company that has worked in disaster response.

“In the context of an emergency, holding out for perfect often gets in the way of good enough,” Payne told lawmakers.

Payne also noted the importance of crowdsourced information during natural disasters. In the days after Sandy hit the East Coast, for instance, volunteer students organized online to call service stations in the affected areas to find out if they still had gas. Google added that information to its crisis map, Stepka said.

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