Chile earthquake: why Google is the last place to go in a crisis

Mar. 11, 2010 | by Tamsin Hemingray

I spent the weekend before last searching the internet for news about the well-being of members of my extended family who live just outside Concepcion – the epicentre of the huge earthquake that rocked Chile on 26 February. I was surprised to find that Google quickly became completely irrelevant to my search for information. It just wasn’t fast, micro or specific enough for my needs. At some point, they’ll get their social search fine tuned and consistent, and they’ll kick the spam merchants out of Google News, but until then Google fails big time when it comes to meeting an immediate, urgent need for micro-level information about something that has just happened. Read on to find out how social media networks succeeded where Google failed.


The urgent need for news

In January I wrote about the way that social media was helping with the aid efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. I had no way of knowing at the time that just a few short weeks later I’d be using my personal social networks to try and track members of my own extended family caught up in an earthquake elsewhere in the world. But on Saturday morning I opened my eyes at about 8am and had a conversation with my husband (who was checking his crackberry – an early morning habit) that went something like this:

Him: “There’s just been a big earthquake in Chile – 8.8 on the Richter scale.”

Me: “Oh no.”

Him: “Epicentre in somewhere called . . . Concepcion?”

Me: “Oh god no. That’s where the family are!”

To cut a long story short, part of my extended family is Chilean: four generations – grandparents, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who all live in Chiguayante, just outside Concepcion. Fourteen family members in total.

I spent the rest of the weekend glued to my computer as I took on the task of “social media monitoring” and quite a lot of “outreach” on Facebook and Twitter on behalf of the family, whilst others desperately tried the “direct marketing” approach of phoning and emailing.

The happy ending is that all 14 of the family are safe and together. We established this via desperate messages left on the walls of family of family and friends of friends on Facebook. While mobile and internet connections are slowly being restored within Chile, it will be a while before telephone connections with the rest of the world are sorted out. But with a Tweet here and a Facebook status update there, we’re getting the picture that they are managing to get by drinking water from a natural spring in the back garden and living off eggs laid by their chickens. Of course, for hundreds, possibly thousands, of others the story has not yet ended. Twitter and Facebook is still full of people looking for loved ones and desperate for any kind of news. Just search for “terremoto” or “ayudachile” on Twitter.

Here are the online tools I used to track down news about my family. The honest truth is that although Google was my first port of call (as i’m sure it was for many), it was far from being  useful.


Fact checking and “expert” insight

  • Standard news sites such as the BBC and CNN were the starting point to establish the facts as far as possible. I did some due diligence by taking a look at source sites too like the British Geological Survey and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre. I kept coming back to these big news sites because I knew that they were verifying everything before they published it. As I started “tuning in” to the chaotic conversations on Twitter it was obvious that some people were filling the information vacuum with suposition and rumour. I used these two big news sites as a fact checker. (Interesting aside: I was really surprised that I found CNN’s coverage much better informed and more dynamic than the BBC’s.)

Personal networks and beyond

  • Facebook was the obvious social network to use to contact family. As you’ll probably be aware, it’s the biggest social network on the planet – +400 million members – and many of our family have accounts there. Meanwhile I updated my own status asking for news on both Twitter and Facebook. On Twitter people immediately began to re-tweet. On Facebook people started to “Like” my status. (I had an email from a friend pointing out that he felt odd about “liking” this but that it was a way of passing the message on to the wider Facebook network.) It was exactly what I wanted to happen. Ultimately it was these messages and this personal network that yielded results – on Sunday afternoon I spotted a response on a cousin of a cousin’s wall from a family member who had been out of town in the north of Chile. She’d managed to get a single mobile call through to the family in the south who had confirmed that they were all safe and more or less well.
  • I used Twitter to try to pick up any information about the local situation. Twitter’s live search function made it easy to start listening in and joining the conversation about just what was going on. I refined my research from “Chile” (people were tweeting in their thousands on the topic and it was impossible to keep up) to “Chiguayante” – the name of the small town just outside Concepcion where they all lived.
  • This was how I found a whole new network: people in Chile and from the four corners of the earth desperately tweeting and re-tweeting messages asking for news about the situation in that town. We began to talk to each other and to share any information that came our way. This was how I found some of the most useful sources of information and kept those who were manning the phone and the email up to date on developments.

mobilerechargeAggregation, curation, and old fashioned broadcast

  • – this site appeared within 3 hours of the quake and began aggregating news stories, pictures, video clips, information from Twitter and Facebook, official announcements and further sources of information. By downloading a plug-in for Firefox I was able to view the page in translation. This continues to be the single most informative site about the fine detail of what it was like to live through the earthquake, in my opinion. I have nothing but respect for Francisco and Evelyn – the two people who set the site up and continue to update it.
  • Chile Person Finder – Google’s most helpful contribution to my search – the database they put together to help people list missing persons and then gather information in a central, searchable database. It is a fantastic idea. And it’s probably only Google who have enough authority to host the definitive missing persons database. So respect to Google for that. But ultimately, it was us who registered our family on there, and us who updated it once we’d got news that they were safe. So it didn’t help me directly.
  • @AyudaChile – this Twitter account for re-tweeting requests for information about lost family members was live in around 5 hours after the earthquake. Whoever set it up – respect to them. There are now 12,000+ followers. Sadly there are still hundreds of requests for information being every hour.
  • TV de Chile livestream on Ustream – this channel had BBC News 24 style reportage from Santiago. All of the footage that the BBC broadcast in the 48hours following the quake came from this source.
  • Radio Agricultura – streaming local radio station that was still broadcasting throughout the quake and in the aftermath.

Other social networks – beyond Facebook and Twitter

  • Flickr – was a great way of finding direct visual confirmation of what was happening in Concepcion. The first pictures from Chiguayante didn’t appear for a few days, but while telephone communication is out, seeing pictures of familiar streets looking more or less ok is a great comfort.
  • YouTube – the video clips of the actual earthquake are harrowing and horrifying to say the least. But clips from the aftermath do reassure that even after 2 minutes of violent shaking, many buildings were still standing pretty much intact.


Camera image via CC Licence from Flickr user Tom

Charging mobiles image via CC Licence from Flickr user Rodrigo Linfati

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    Comments (2)

    • Charlie Peverett

      A really useful anatomy of your research, thanks for sharing and glad the family are all ok.

      The way information travels in these ad hoc networks is fascinating.

      The thing about these networks is that they look quite different depending on which bit you are in. And Google, even with all its personalisation and tracking, cannot make sense of information as quickly and usefully as individual players in the network can, as they search for information, interpret it, aggregate it and share it from their particular perspectives, according to their own needs, and those of others important to them.

      In these cases it's very much about *enabling users to organise*, rather than organising on their behalf. That's why content communities - whether owned by Google or not - become invaluable, alongside the grease provided by Facebook and Twitter.

      And why keeping them at their core free to use, open and unmoderated is essential to the emerging 'hive brain'.

      [China, what happens if the rest of the world allows a hive brain to develop without you in it?]Mar 23, 2010 12:03 pm

    • hackbash » Blog Archive » SEWoe is me

      [...] written on the iCrossing blog about how Google’s useless in a crisis. To an extent that’s unsurprising; something as fast moving and serious as the Chilean [...]Mar 12, 2010 05:07 pm

    Please note: the opinions expressed in this post represent the views of the individual, not necessarily those of iCrossing.

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