A non-profit bankrolled by Google.org launches Thursday with a mission to deploy technology to detect disease and coordinate responses to global health and environmental disasters. And a prime weapon in its arsenal?
InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters) has big plans for the instant messaging service that techies, teenagers and twentysomethings use to instantly – and constantly — update their network of friends by broadcasting instant messages over their cell phones.
“It’s an example that seems almost laughable,” InSTEDD chief executive Eric Rasmussen tells Green Wombat. “But from our perspective, Twitter has remarkable capacity.”
InSTEDD will use free social networking services like Twitter and Facebook and Web 2.0 programs like Google (GOOG) Maps to coordinate health programs and disaster relief.
Rasmussen — a physician, former U.S. Navy commander and veteran relief worker — says one of InSTEDD’s first projects will be working with the Mekong Basin Disease Surveillance Network Project, a joint effort of six Southeast Asian nations. Field workers, for instance, can send out Twitter updates on their work to colleagues, hospitals and relief organizations.
“I was very impressed that Twitter worked in Laos,” Rasmussen says. “We were in the highlands of the Mekong Delta and had one bar [of cell phone signal strength] but we could get messages out. I have had trouble finding my team members from time to time when people go to remote villages to deliver supplies. But if there is a cell signal I can get an SMS message out. It is the ubiquitous form factor.”
InSTEDD’s Palo Alto-based team — which includes former Microsoft (MSFT) executives — will tap $5 million from Google.org (Google’s philanthropic arm) plus money from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop technology tools for humanitarian organizations, the United Nations and other groups.
“The eventual hope is that there will be a robust, resilient platform that goes end to end, from field reporting to deep analysis,” says Rasmussen. “We only build what we can’t find off the shelf.”
One humanitarian mashup might combine Twitter, Facebook and Google Maps. Managers and members of a relief organization, for example, could check their Facebook group to see the location of far-flung field workers on a map and receive updates on their work via Twitter.
“It’s the broadcast aspect of Twitter that’s so powerful,” says Rasmussen. “I can go to the people in a tent next to me, I can go to four different emergency centers and headquarters all at one time.”
For the field worker, all that is needed is a mobile phone.
Says Rasmussen: “We recognize the hot, tired, scared aspect of working in these environments so we’re looking at keeping things simple.”