SOS Alerts added to Google search results

Google has begun rounding up information about unfolding natural disasters, terrorism and other crises within its Search and Maps tools.

Visitors will be shown updates from authorities, news articles, emergency telephone numbers and other useful information in a single place.

The SOS Alerts facility can also be set to trigger mobile notifications to those nearby to affected locations.

However, it will apply to only a dozen countries at launch.

The initiative builds on earlier emergency response efforts from the US firm, including its Person Finder and Crisis Map tools.

But this time, rather than requiring users to go to special sections of its site, SOS Alerts attempts to bring key information about incidents directly into two of Google’s most used services.

Foreign phrases

When activated, the Maps tool reveals, among other things, areas that should be avoided, which roads have been closed and places users can seek refuge.

Data gathered from the firm’s crowdsourced Waze mapping platform also makes it possible to see where traffic jams, accidents and other problems have been reported by the public.

The level of detail shown within the Search tool depends on whether the person carrying out the query is close to the incident.

If nearby, they are presented with links to official alerts, tweets from first responders, and useful short phrases in the local language.

Those searching from afar are shown less detail unless they click for more information, but they may also be told how to make donations to charities involved in clean-up operations, if Google believes it to be appropriate.

“In situations of crisis, the need for information is crucial,” Yossi Matias, the firm’s vice-president of engineering, told the BBC.

“People need to know what’s going on – anything that may be related to their safety, or any action they should be taking.”

He added that Google had set up a dedicated team to decide which events warranted an SOS Alert, but declined to reveal how many people had been assigned to it.

Facebook – which offers a parallel service to let members in the vicinity of a disaster tell friends they are safe – has at times been criticised for activating it under “inappropriate” circumstances.

Google has joined forces with with local-government bodies, the Red Cross and various weather-forecasting organisations to provide SOS Alerts to 12 countries so far. They include the US, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and Canada.

But the UK and other European nations are not covered yet, although there are plans to add them soon.

“Radio and television were once the only channels to quickly provide information in an emergency, but the internet and mobile phones have become increasingly important,” said Robert Glenn, director at the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is part of the scheme.



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