InSTEDD + + Google Earth = global early warning system

It has dawned on many people that brave new world of free satellite imaging, GPS and ubiquitous internet (save for big bits of Ethiopia — Ed.) is bursting with potential for some kind of better global rescue response and disaster mitigation service — and that includes the smart people at the philanthropic arm of Google,

Last week,’s Larry Brilliant announced which five initiatives in three main areas the new organization will focus its resources on in the coming years. (The Economist has a great profile on Brilliant and the difficulty of doing that triage.) It’s a pleasant surprise that one of the focus areas will involve funding research into making such a global rapid-reporting platform a reality, especially as it will make good use of Google’s newfound neogeographic prowess:

From the Economist: has made a $5m grant to Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disaster (InSTEDD), a non-governmental organisation that is building a rapid-reporting platform to connect people on the ground with those monitoring pandemics. It hopes to raise the quality of public services in poor countries by improving the flow of information both to those who run them and to those they serve.

Joshua Hill at the Canada Free Press has a bit more about InSTEDD, and the technologies it is harnessing:

One of the applications that this project will focus around is the ability that Twitter has to work between the internet and mobile phones. Using a location detection feature, a message sent from a phone from the middle of Africa, will tie in with a layer on Google Earth, pinpointing the senders location, with the text message requesting help. Aid workers from UNICEF or the InSTEDD’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California, could then read the message, and provide assistance.

“We can send an SMS message onto Google Earth in an emergency center, and it sees a dot with a color-coded response, with my name and date. Right underneath that, there’s a button that says reply, and (aid workers can send a note that says) we have the resources you need 2 miles north…Suddenly there’s a two-way conversation using nothing but a cell phone with one bar,” said [Eric Rasmussen, president and CEO of InSTEDD], adding: “We’ve done this.”

There are plenty of challenges — what to do in regions that do not enjoy internet or wireless telephony, how to secure communications, how to trust and verify reports, how to overcome local governmental suspicions of spying, how to make the reporting simple and error-proof — but these are precisely what the funding is intended for InSTEDD to address. I can’t wait to see it in action.