Search and Rescue via Social Networking

My friend Brian Humphrey of the LA Fire Department (watch for an interview with him here as soon as he has a chance in his 96-hour workday in between appearances on CNN and the Today Show) told me about an amazing civilian-led search and rescue operation that’s going on right now using technology and online social networks.

Last Sunday (Jan 28), a renowned Microsoft researcher named James Gray (pictured above) failed to return from a sailing trip in the San Francisco Bay Area. The US Coast Guard searched the ocean along nearly the length of California from Sunday night through Thursday without finding a thing — Dr. Gray’s sailboat Tenacious was gone without a trace.

On that Monday, dozens of Dr. Gray’s colleagues, friends and former students came together to figure out ways to use their technical know-how to find him. Computer scientists from Google, Amazon, Microsoft, NASA and various universities put together software, created a blog to track their efforts, and leveraged technical resources like Google Earth’s satellite imaging expertise and Amazon’s image processing capabilities.

Google worked with DigitalGlobe to capture satellite images of the hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean coastline that were the most likely areas Dr. Gray’s boat would be found. The circle of computer scientists then created a program to break up the images in a way that they could be posted to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site, where people can sift through the images one by one to see if there were any sign of the boat or debris. Images that are marked by the volunteers as having objects of potential interest are then reviewed by the team. Any promising leads will be followed up on by the Coast Guard. (If you would like to volunteer to help sift through the images, go to

In addition to scanning the satellite images, the group is using the blog as a clearinghouse to collect ideas, share theories and for people with related expertise to put together clues as to what might have happened to Dr. Gray’s boat. There are oceanography experts looking at ocean models, scientists looking at radar data, communications experts trying to figure out his trajectory based on the last signals from his cell phone, people in their own planes and boats physically searching the waters, volunteers putting up posters and talking to boaters and Harbormasters around Bay Area marinas, and many other angles being pursued. The technology is making it possible for people from across the country and around the world to put their heads together to come up with solutions quickly.

Dr. Gray must have touched a lot of lives to engender the kind of dedicated effort being expended to find him. With this amount of brain power focused on looking for him, I would like to think he has a good chance of being found soon. I wish them tremendous luck in their search and hope this story will have a happy ending. I’m going to get back to scanning the images. There are still more than 3000 left in this group to get though.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

Show Me the Data

Downtown Los Angeles has the largest homeless population in the US. But until recently, the data on the problem has been spotty. Starting in November 2006, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has been surveying the streets of Downtown every two weeks to count the number of homeless people, their exact locations and some basic demographics. All this data ends up on an Excel spreadsheet. But what could they do with this raw data? Just looking at the numbers is almost meaningless, since there are so many data points to compare.

Enter Cartifact, a custom mapping firm based in Downtown LA. They offered to work with the LAPD to help them visualize the information in a meaningful way and to see changes over time. Together the LAPD and Cartifact have created the Downtown Los Angeles Homeless Map, which takes the information from the biweekly Excel spreadsheet and converts it into a GIS-based heatmap superimposed on a street map of Downtown that shows the density and location of homeless people on each day of data collection. The individual maps are animated together to show the changes between each two-week period.

Eric Richardson, who writes blogdowntown, is also the lead developer for Cartifact. He notes on his blog how the most recent data provided some immediate insights into what is happening with the homeless population:

Interesting to note, though, is the way in which temperature affects the number of people on the street. It’s cold outside, and has been for several days now. The count for January 15th (Monday) was down 271 people from January 2nd. It got cold and the people who could find somewhere to go did so.

And in the comments he explains why these maps are helpful:

But also this sort of visualization is vital because it tells us what trends are occurring over time. Since enforcement of Safer Cities began there has been a definite spread of homeless to areas outside of Skid Row, particularly into the Toy District, the Fashion District and into South Park. Anecdotally we see this every day, but visualizing hard data allows us to say it for certain. That sort of knowledge is important for planning strategy.

This type of mapping could be used very effectively as a basis for understanding many health and social problems in a particular geographic area. Imagine using this to map the spread of an infectious epidemic – you could easily see what direction it was moving in, what types of neighborhoods it hit the hardest, what the boundaries of a quarantine area might need to be. You could look at areas with high exercise density (where people running or walking for exercise tend to be found) and make sure there are sidewalks and crosswalks on those streets. Map out gang-related incidents to see where to concentrate your violence prevention billboards or locate your program’s youth drop-in center.

I’m sure some form of mapping is occurring in many programs. The advantage of this model is that the heatmap format conveys a lot of information in a quick glance, and that it is easy to visualize changes over time. As Jerry Maguire might have said, had he been a social marketer rather than a sports agent, “Show me the data!”

(via LAObserved)

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

The Old Tom Sawyer Trick

Google has figured out a way to get us to paint their fence while they lie under a tree eating an apple. While doing a search on Google Images, I saw a box at the bottom of the page with the text “Want to improve Google Image Search? Try Google Image Labeler.” Out of curiosity, I clicked the link and found out that it is a feature that “allows you to label random images to help improve the quality of Google’s image search results.”

Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Here’s the twist: They’ve turned it into an online collaborative game with a random partner. You are paired with someone else who is also online, and you have 90 seconds to go through as many images as you can in that time period. You list as many relevant labels as you can for each picture until both partners come up with the same label for a picture, earning points based on your mutual performance. You then move on to the next image until time runs out. At the end of the 90 seconds, you can look at what words the other person used to describe the picture and what word you matched on.

I tried it out and found it to be oddly addictive. It’s partly a “what the heck is that thing?”, partly a test of your mental thesaurus, and partly a Family Feud-style “what would someone else say it is?” It’s instructive to see that what might seem obvious to you is not always the way that someone else would describe something. For example, while I was focusing on describing the woman in the foreground of the picture, my partner was describing the street scene around her. And a close-up of a map of Manhattan was described by my partner as a “graph” before he/she decided to pass. But for the most part, it was amazing how quickly my various partners and I converged.

This approach was quite clever on Google’s part. By turning this into a game and allowing people to accumulate points over time, this repetitive and boring task is turned into a challenging and fun test of your mental skills. As those of you with kids know, this kind of tactic can be quite motivating (“Who can put away more blocks in one minute? Ready, go!”).

Is there any way you can engage your audience in your issue by turning it into a game rather than a chore that must be done? The Movember campaign in Australia and New Zealand is an example of slipping in some health education while participants have fun growing a mustache during the month of November to raise money and awareness of male health issues. Giving your kids the Dance Dance Revolution game might provide them with the benefit of exercise without them even realizing that they are doing more than having fun. If you can figure out a way to get people to take an important action, but in the context of having fun, you will be much more successful than if it is posed as “a good thing to do.”

And then we can kick back and relax while they do all the work and have fun doing it!

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Googlebombing for Good

Anyone who has done a Google search on the words “miserable failure” has witnessed the effects of a Google bomb (the first result is a link to George W. Bush’s bio, though #2 and 3 are to Jimmy Carter and Michael Moore). This is a way that people attempt to influence the ranking of a page in the Google results — often for political or humorous reasons. When particular words are frequently linked to a specific website, that site will come up higher in the rankings when a search is done for those words.

These hijinks are not usually something that people outside of SEO or dirty politics need to worry about. But recently it has been noted that the top result on a Google search for “Martin Luther King” is a site called martinlutherking dot org that was created by a white supremacist group (I did not link to it to avoid raising its PageRank). At first glance, it appears to be legitimate, and has probably been used by many unsuspecting people as a source of information about MLK. Apparently, quite a few educators who are trying to teach their students about being critical of what they read on the internet have linked to this page as an example, which has inadvertently raised it to the top spot (not to mention the skinheads or others who uncritically used it as a source who are linking to it as well).

So to try to push this offensive website off the front page, I’m joining in on the campaign to Google bomb it out of there. If you want to join in, you can grab the code from Tuttle SVC’s blog for the links below, which provide much better alternatives for those who want real information.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

Technorati Tags: , ,

Search Engine Marketing Fun

Periodically I like to take a look at the search phrases people are using to find my blog. With Google Analytics, I can see the exact words someone used to get to a particular page on my site. Most of the time, the searches are just what you would expect: “social marketing,” “what is social marketing,” “spare change,” various combinations of my name and company, and other phrases that are clearly related to a topic I’ve written about on the blog. Would you believe that one of the most frequent searches the blog turns up on is for information on Jack in the Box commercials? There must be a lot of JITB fans. And apparently there is a movie out called “Spare Change” because there are quite a few searches for that (as well as a Spare Change hip-hop group).

But then there are other more interesting search terms that somehow led people to a random phrase or unrelated topic I included in a post. In these cases, my peeking at the search engine results feels somewhat voyeuristic, like I’m viewing something that the searcher did not intend for another person to see. But since it’s all anonymous, I’m going to share some of the strangest search terms I’ve seen in the past couple of months with you. Apologies if anyone recognizes your own search in there!

Some of them are questions you might never have thought to ask:

  • would Jesus use multimedia [The Sermon on the Mount would have been so much more effective accompanied by PowerPoint.]
  • is it ethical to change name to got milk [What? Someone wants to become “Got Milk” Goldstein?]
  • why the cello squeaks
  • how to make a jack in the box head
  • reasons why you should save your spare change [how about because it’s money?]

Some make me wonder why they think I would have the answer for them:

  • best places to get colonoscopy
  • I want to change my religion
  • should I learn cello or piano
  • how do you say goodbye in Chinese

Some of them are just plain creepy:

  • movie about a sex change at a science fair
  • drug use on the set of bionic woman [Not Lindsay! No!!]
  • rubber hands
  • painted overgrown toenail pictures
  • drinking and driving is fun
  • I change the giant puppets

Some combinations of words are puzzling:

  • the number 24 [is this a dyslexic Douglas Adams fan?]
  • king ding a ling
  • juggling lose weight [the new fitness craze that’s sweeping the nation!]
  • we agree to change spare
  • panhandlers second life [I guess the SL residents that haven’t bought land yet are the new homeless problem]
  • celebrity infant car seats
  • homeless kids fire swallowers [hopefully only in Second Life]
  • yoga fundraising [is that related to Presentation Zen?]
  • change fruit
  • healthy munchies stoners [hey – at least they’ll get their essential vitamins and minerals while they get wasted]

And then there are the painful human dramas:

  • games and activities for a 4 year old with asthma
  • can my son change from being gay by using medicine
  • how to create a flyer for a child with cancer

So what’s the social marketing lesson here? Perhaps that it can be hard to predict exactly how people will find your website or blog, so you need to make sure that your pages/posts have enough relevant words in them to increase the chances that someone looking for your information will find you. And make sure that if someone arrives at a random page on your website, you have enough navigational information — or even suggestions of related content — on each page that they will look around to see what else you have of interest. I’m not a search engine optimization expert, but there are plenty of other blogs and websites that you can look at to get some guidelines. And if any of you with a have some interesting or strange search phrases that you’ve come across on your own site, please share!

Photo credit: wagg66

Technorati Tags: , ,

Real Disaster Preparedness in a Virtual World

An anonymous commenter on my recent post on the CDC in Second Life directed me to the Idaho Bioterrorism Awareness and Preparedness Program’s Play2Train project.  This space provides a virtual training environment for emergency response professionals.  They have a town set up where they can role play various disaster scenarios complete with victims, as well as a hospital with exercise machines, an isolation ward and a surgery room.  They have also created a machinima video depicting the various stages of smallpox, and a simulation to help teach lung sound auscultation (a fancy way of saying “listening to the lungs with a stethoscope”).  What a great way of doing this type of training in a low-cost way but with a big impact.

Technorati Tags: ,