How Google helps people seek refuge from Colorado floods
Google Crisis Maps and other digital media are becoming the go-to resource for those in a crisis, most recently those affected by the Colorado floods. But with any natural disaster, sometimes the crisis moves faster than what can be mapped.
When Nick St. George needed to give his girlfriend directions from South Dakota back home to Denver last Saturday, he relied on Google Maps. But with the northern route into Denver riddled with massive flooding, road closures, and power outages, Mr. St. George turned to Google for an extra reason: safety. Using the Google Crisis Map and COtrip.org, he was able to guide her through treacherous conditions created by more than 30 inches of rain, plus ensure her home in Longmont, Colo., was out of harms way.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"It was definitely a source of great relief in a time of uncertainty," he says.
Coloradans in crisis have turned to Google Maps, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), social media, and other digital tools to find resources and map routes, often successfully reaching their destination (and knowing whether that destination is in a flood zone). But as with any natural disaster, a flood moves faster than the Internet. This has left some residents piecing together what information they can as the technology catches up.
RECOMMENDED: The 10 most expensive US natural disasters
The Google Crisis Response Team set up a Google Crisis Map of the floods on Sept. 12, one day after the bulk of the rain started. The map, which automatically zooms in to the areas hardest hit by the floods (viewers can zoom in and out), includes pinpoints where streets are closed, thick red lines over inaccessible roads, hazard signs where there are road blocks, and red triangles to show rock fall outs or shoulder damage, among other symbols that vary from county to county. Map viewers can click each point to find out more information, and can check boxes so the map only shows alerts in certain areas or includes photos and webcam imagery.
“A lot of problems during disasters are typically information problems," says Nigel Snoad, product manager at Google Crisis Response. "People are increasingly turning to the Internet during this time.”
Google Crisis Maps attempts to solve the information problem by bringing together public information from a variety of local, state, and regional sources, working with local organizations to increase information flow and calling up sources to double-check information is correct. Crisis Maps were first officially started in 2011 with the earthquake and tsunami in Japan (though Google had worked on crisis map products before that).
While local websites map out similar information, Google's team benefits from having the full force and know-how of the company behind it. Its database system can handle huge influxes of traffic that would crash other sites. In addition, Google has experts in many fields and in many areas around the world. Take, for example, Ryan Falor, formerly a product manager at Google Crisis Response and now works with Google Groups in Boulder, Colo. He says that the site is updated around the clock by a rotating group of several Google employees.
Mr. Falor adds that Google Crisis Response can't map every disaster, but when the group feels that its resources can be of help, it steps in.