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Freebies in Action: Craigslist and Google Earth Save Lives

Captain Ronnie Young (center), Master Sergeant Frank Bernal (left), and Major Kyle Cowherd
Captain Ronnie Young (center), Master Sergeant Frank Bernal (left), and Major Kyle Cowherd used Google Earth to save lives during Katrina rescue missions.
Photograph: Reed Rahn
Captain Ronnie Young of the United States Air Force says that Craigslist and Google Earth, both popular freebies, saved lives during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. "Just because it's free, that doesn't mean it's not up to the task of doing great things," Young says.

The eureka moment came to Young days after Katrina devastated New Orleans. As a senior intelligence officer with the 347th Expeditionary Rescue Group, his job was to help helicopter pilots locate people who needed rescuing. On a tip, Young went to Craigslist and began scouring hundreds of postings on its New Orleans message board -- pages of messages left by worried relatives and friends inquiring about missing loved ones.

Young remembers reading postings pleading to any rescue worker to save family members and friends who were either too old or too sick to stand on their rooftops and wave down a passing helicopter.

The Air Force certainly wanted to take action, but there was one significant problem: Maps of New Orleans were useless, because half the city was underwater and the topography ravaged by the hurricane left too few discernible landmarks for helicopters to navigate to specific addresses. "We had the street addresses of people who needed help, but the streets were gone. It was almost impossible to find these addresses from Craigslist from the air," Young says.

That's when Young got the bright idea to use Google Earth to cross-reference the street addresses culled from Craigslist. By this point Google had integrated post-Katrina aerial photographs of New Orleans into its Google Earth program -- which, unlike the existing U.S. military maps available at that time, could overlay street addresses on top of the new aerial images of New Orleans.

From Jacksonville, Mississippi, where Young was based at the time, he used the addresses and the images to pinpoint the exact location of Katrina victims. After compiling this information, Young and a cadre of intelligence professionals were able to hand Air Force pilots flying rescue-helicopter missions the precise GPS coordinates of the stranded, along with recent aerial photographs of their whereabouts.

"I definitely can credit those free tools for absolutely saving lives," Young says.

Tom Spring

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