So First Monday has a reasonably good article on the Katrina PeopleFinder Project. Interestingly enough, the authors never contacted me, so I should offer a few clarifications.
This they got spot on... go read Ethan Zukerman's quote. It all gets started from the personal network and rapidly expands to other people's personal networks. I got to Ethan through Jon Lebkowsky, from there we got to the LiveJournal community.
This is an extremely powerful model for network-driven action.
Everyone should have the technology tools to create massive social change at their fingertips. That is what we are doing with CivicSpace On Demand. If you are interested in using our services or investing in the CivicSpace company, please drop me an email.
The Red Cross
The Red Cross simply was not equipped at that time to deal with the type of technology we were creating or with some random group of people off the Internet. This is changing with a new CTO that is bringing some folks in to support a culture shift around technology. I hope they succeed.
But at the time, there was little in the way of a "relationship" with the Red Cross. I don't think I ever had a direct conversation with anyone at the Red Cross, those communications went on elsewhere in the network. The issue of sharing data was never in question... that is why we build the PeopleFinder Interchange Format (PFIF).
The issue was that Red Cross and their vendor Microsoft tried to create "the single authoritative source" for evacuee information -- katrinasafe. We were in this for people, not technology, so if Red Cross/ Microsoft would have been able to launch a solution and clearly communicate their intentions, we would have helped more people more quickly.
The issues that I saw the community discuss revolved around two things:
- The Red Cross and Microsoft made pronouncements, but never delivered at the pace the PeopleFinder project was delivering. Why stop helping people today, in the hopes of helping them "better" next week?
- The approach the Red Cross was backing was a closed approach that simply funneled data into a single katrinasafe site and did not release any data back out again to people that had innovative solutions to make the situation better. This fundamental philosophical difference is playing out in our society today through issues like SaveTheInternet and Creative Commons content licenses. This was the fundamental conflict. But we were all in it help people find their loved ones... the philisophical questions could be sorted out latter.
I think the conclusion that corporate participation or resources are required in an effort of this scale is just plain false. Salesforce.com Foundation was an incredibly valuable partner that was critical to the success of the project.
But the fact we relied on their hardware and software resources actually slowed the PeopleFinder project down by days. Open source software and communities mean that no one has to get permission, people can just dive in an solve the problem. We had perhaps 50 programmers volunteering for us, and solving problems, but only a couple people on the Salesforce side. We had offers of server clusters and all kinds of technical resources.
One problem we faced is we had collected about 500,000 records we needed to get into the katrinalist database, but the technology could only upload a small (something like a thousand) number of records at a time. By the time we were aware of the problem, a high school student in the Midwest released software that fed data into the system in small chunks.
It is this innovation, this mass action, that corporations and a corporate resources are not equipped to understand, interact with or leverage.
I realize now that early in the process I had been culturally-conditioned into believing that big companies and institutions were the only ones with the resources to do really big things. Now I realize that the network scales almost infinitely-- corporations and institutions have limited capacity.