One of the biggest projects to come out of the many online volunteer efforts in response to the Haiti earthquake is the Person Finder widget. Created by Google's Crisis Response Team, the widget allows you to search a database of missing people in Haiti, as well as to add new people to it. Here's the code to embed it:
width=350 height=300 frameborder=0
style="border: dashed 2px #77c"></iframe>
One of the most personally gratifying things to come out of this effort is the fact that Google is using PeopleFinder Interchange Format (PFIF) to process the missing persons report. PFIF was created in the days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina, during which time many websites served as ad hoc collections of missing persons information, often published by family and friends in a narrative format. While this format made for powerful, heartbreaking reading, it meant there was no easy way to organize all of this data into a single database. So a group of volunteers created PFIF as a way of structuring this data, then mobilized literally thousands of other volunteers to convert these collections of missing persons information into PFIF.
We've seen the same thing happen over the last week - websites from CNN.com to Facebook have attracted thousands of posts from members of the public looking for loved ones in Haiti. With the creation of the Person Finder widget, it's now possible for any website to host a simple mechanism for posting or finding missing persons information. Some sites, including NYTimes.com, have managed to export their collections into PFIF. In other cases, volunteers have either converted missing persons lists by hand or have written scripts to scrape the information from other sites and send it to Google as a spreadsheet. And as of today, there's even an API to make this process even easier.
If you haven't explored the widget yet, please try it out. And if you have a Web site where you can publish it, please consider embedding it on your site.