By the time waters had receded in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina had wrought twin disasters. One was the obvious flesh and blood tragedy– thousands of human lives were lost in the disaster. The other disaster was for FEMA, for Bush, and for all the civil servants whose bungling in the face of devastation was a sharp blow to their credibility.

    One lesson we can take away is this: "Ordinary people can solve communication problems much quicker than clueless government officials when catastrophes like hurricane Katrina strike." So says Steven Berlin Johnson, in an article for Discover magazine. Why is this the case? The simple answer: as technology continues to grow, there is more and more intelligence in mobs.

    When Katrina struck, panicked survivors went to sites like Craigslist, Yahoo!, and the Red Cross website. But the information on these sites– by virtue of the sheer number of people affected– was too much to sift through. Survivors were lost in what is often termed "data smog." How would they find their way through all this?

    The answer did not come in the form of a systemic plan, be it state or private sector. It came, instead, through the diffuse actions of thousands of tech-savvy volunteers. In response to the tragedy, David Geilhufe and his small team formed the PeopleFinder Interchange Format– "a service that gathered information from all over the Web through something called "screen scraping," an automated process that involves grabbing the relevant information for each person—name, location, age, and description—and depositing it in a single database." The team's efforts were picked up by a few prominent bloggers, who spread the word. Almost overnight, Geilhufe's team had expanded to a decentralized army of thousands, all helping survivors connect and communicate.

    Johnson notes that only through spontaneous order could such a sucessful task be executed:

"PeopleFinder was the kind of data-management effort that could have taken a year to execute at great expense if a corporation or a government agency had been in charge of it. The PeopleFinder group managed to pull it off in four days for zero dollars."

Daniel Corbett

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