Google Pulls Together Public Alerts in Wake of Hurricane Sandy

Google is making it easier for Google Search and Maps users, and for Android smartphone and tablet users, to get public safety alerts during times of emergency.

Google has bundled its Public Alerts services, which provide information and warnings during emergencies, into Google Search, Google Maps and into its Android Maps and Google Now apps on devices running Jelly Bean.

The announcement came just after the height of Hurricane Sandy, which pummeled much of the East Coast with hurricane-force winds, heavy rains, flooding, downed tree limbs and massive power outages stretching from Boston to Maryland.

"Earlier today we posted about efforts to provide information to those affected by the former hurricane and now superstorm Sandy," Nigel Snoad, product manager for Google Crisis Response, wrote in an Oct. 30 post on the Google Official Blog. "We also want to let you know that Public Alerts are now available on Google Search & Maps in your browser, on Google Maps for Android and also on Google Now for Android devices running Jellybean."
Public Alerts from Google have been around since January, but will now come up in Google searches automatically for users so they can get the most up-to-date warnings for natural disasters and emergency situations.

"They appear based on targeted Google searches, such as [superstorm Sandy], or with location-based search queries like [New York]," wrote Snoad. "In addition to the alert, you’ll also see relevant response information, such as evacuation routes, crisis maps or shelter locations. We were planning on announcing the new features in a few days, but wanted to get them out as soon as possible so they can be helpful to people during this time."

So far, Public Alerts are primarily available in English for the United States, but Google is working to expand the alerts with local information in other countries in the future, according to Snoad.

The information in the Google Public Alerts comes from a wide range of sources, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), according to Google. The alerts use open standards like the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) to create and issue the warnings.

In the future, local emergency data from Nixle will also be included in the alerts.
The Public Alerts are provided to the public by Google philanthropic division, which also provides Crisis Map services that help monitor and track major storms, natural disasters and other emergency events to assist during local disasters.

The latest Google Crisis Map was produced Oct. 25 in preparation for the approaching Hurricane Sandy. That map included several hurricane-related layers, including current and forecast locations, cloud and wind information, and public alerts featuring emergency information such as evacuation routes. The map showed a wide range of information layers that detailed many aspects of the approaching storm, including its current location, forecast location, weather radar, wind speed probabilities, emergency alerts and hurricane evacuation routes. Also available were information layers for traffic conditions, active emergency shelters, disaster recovery centers, storm surge zones and catalogs of YouTube videos that have been shot and uploaded to show the effects of the storm. The layers can be added or removed by map visitors to customize the information they can receive about the progress of the storm.

Google's Crisis Response team has been providing such information for the last few years, albeit on a more reactive, rather than proactive, basis.

In August, Google published a Crisis Response map for Tropical Storm Isaac as it approached the U.S. Gulf Coast, and another for massive flooding that occurred in the Philippines following a monsoon. Google also created such maps after earthquakes in Haiti and Chile in 2010, after the tsunami and earthquake in Japan in 2011, and after the BP oil spill in the Gulf in 2010 and Hurricane Irene in the United States in 2011.

Google also recently updated its public alerts to include tsunami data for the U.S. and Canada. Additional areas will be rolled out in the future, according to the company.