Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Information discovery in a national disaster

For the past week, I've been hearing news reports of people trying to locate their relatives and friends who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina. In the same reports, I hear of all the web sites that have been created to allow people to post queries to find people and others to post information to say they are "OK." The Librarians' Index to the Internet has added nearly 100 sites in the last few days.

Isn't it time for one search to search all of the databases? To find the information about a person that is "OK" wherever it is posted? To find the people looking for you? My wife suggested someone like Google or Yahoo could probably do this. Both of these companies are expert in developing a database of harvested data that can be search. But such technology would not provide up-to-date information. I think what we need is probably something of a federated search, or more specifically, the ability to search multiple sites in real time.

I don't think it's realistic to expect that a single database will be created that everyone will use in such a situation, but we do need a search interface that brings all of the data together. Could the semantic web do this?

This is just one instance of a need to bring coordination to the disaster relief efforts, but centralization via FEMA doesn't seem realistic. This seems to be a situation that pushes us to develop technologies that allow real-time searching of multiple databases, all of which hold relevant data, but not necessarily in the same data structures.

In spite of the fact that the web existed in September 2001, I'm wondering if we might have reached a "tipping point" in the popular use of the Web. Is this the first national disaster we've experienced since the Web has become a primary means of people networking?