Google Activates Person Finder in Aftermath of Boston Marathon Bombings

Google's Person Finder set up a method for people to check on friends and family members near the crime scene in Boston during the emergency.

Google set up its Google Person Finder Website in Boston shortly after the twin bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line April 15 to make it easier for survivors at the scene to communicate with worried friends and family members in the hours after the horrific terrorist attack.

By the afternoon of April 16, information about some 5,400 people had been entered into the database so that people could search for loved ones to make sure they were safe after the explosions. Users can enter their own names or the names of someone else, along with other pertinent information, so that others can learn of their status, according to the site.

The Google Person Finder service, which is one of the company's philanthropic initiatives, was started in January 2010 in response to the Haiti earthquake to enable victims to connect with their loved ones. The Person Finder database uses common file formats that are interchangeable with other registries so that information on survivors and victims can easily be accessed and transferred.

The service is initiated by Google when conditions warrant its use, the company said. "The Google Crisis Response team analyzes the scale of impact of the disaster and then determines which of its tools would be most useful for responding to the given situation," Google states in an FAQ about the service.

All data entered is public and anyone can view it, according to Google.

The Website had other important information for survivors near the bombings, including phone numbers for the Boston Mayor's Hotline for families of victims, 617-635-4500, and for a Boston Police line for witnesses who may have information about the incidents, 800-494-8477.

A Google spokesman declined to comment on the specifics of the Boston Person Finder tool today, saying the company is focusing on getting people the tools that they need in the wake of the attack. The Person Finder pages and their data will be deleted once the crisis is over, according to Google.

The American Red Cross offers a similar tool, called Safe and Well, to help people reconnect in the midst of disasters, whether they are caused by storms, floods, crimes or other issues, according to Melanie Pipkin, a spokeswoman for the group.

These kinds of tools can really help people find out about loved ones and friends when other means of communication, including landline and mobile phone networks, are overloaded or not operating, said Pipkin. "We also encourage people to use a couple different methods, such as also putting their information on Twitter, Facebook and more," as well as entering their information into several sites for locating people and letting loved ones know they are safe after a disaster.

The Red Cross also offers a series of free mobile apps that will help users by linking to various social media networks and automatically giving their status messages, she said. There's even an "I'm safe" button that can be clicked so that your friends and family get a quick update on a person's status.

The Red Cross apps, which provide detailed information on dealing with hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and earthquakes, are available through the Apple Store and the Google Play store.

"The most important thing is that people are connected" after disasters, said Pipkin. "Use the resources available to you to find your loved ones. It's good to cover all your bases."

Google also offers detailed Public Alerts Web pages that are created in times of emergency to aid residents in affected communities. The alerts, first created in January 2012, provide information and warnings during emergencies such as natural disasters.

Last October, Google established a Public Alert page in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which pummeled the East Coast. Google has since also bundled those alerts into Google Search, Google Maps, and into its Android Maps and Google Now apps so that Web searchers get alerts information when they are searching for content in affected areas.