Anthony Baxter Online lifesaver

16 Nov 2012

Author: Brad Howarth

Photography: Pierre Toussaint

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Digital technology has infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives. Thanks to Australian software engineer Anthony Baxter and his colleagues at Google, it might also be playing a role in saving lives as well.
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It was while watching the horror of the Black Saturday bushfires unfold in his home state of Victoria in February 2009, that Baxter saw a chance to use his digital talents to help people in a very real and meaningful way.

Google already has a mission statement to organise the world’s information, which it does through products such as its search engine and Google Maps tools (the latter developed in Australia). And at no time is the need for organised and reliable information more critical than in a disaster.

During Victoria’s hour of need, Baxter recognised an opportunity to utilise Google’s reach and skills in displaying geographic data to create a bushfire map. He sent out an email to a group of fellow engineers calling for help, and an interactive map providing vital information for relief authorities and residents was up online the morning after the fires.

His justification was simple: “It needed to be done.”

Baxter and his colleagues continued carrying out this work in an ad hoc fashion through the course of 2009, volunteering their time to assist with a string of crises. His efforts also included staying in close contact with government agencies to source and distribute accurate information.

“Our role is to step in and help them amplify their message,” Baxter says.

When an earthquake struck the island of Haiti in January 2010, killing more than 300,000, Google formalised the efforts of Baxter and others like him to create a dedicated global Crisis Response team.

While much of the team’s work had been focused on dealing with the aftermath of disasters, more recently Baxter has directed his attention to assisting people before and during crises. Here the ability to disseminate accurate information quickly is even more crucial.

“The best way to save someone’s life in a bushfire is to put that person somewhere where the fire isn’t,” Baxter says. “And the easiest way to do that is to let people know as far in advance as possible where the fires are going to be.”

In the recent case of Hurricane Sandy, that meant providing details on where the storm was likely to come ashore, where the shelters were, and where food and other supplies could be found.

As well as maps, his team’s activities also include pushing crucial alerts out to mobile devices, such as information regarding evacuations. Additional tools help people to find others who may be missing, and help crisis responders to collaborate.

His work in this area has no directly measurable value to Google, but he knows it is the right thing to do. Had it not been for Baxter’s pioneering efforts, it is possible that more lives may have been lost in crises around the world.

“It is unknowable, the number of people we have helped,” Baxter says. “But when it comes to fires, a hurricane or tornados, those things kill. So if we can do things to reduce the number of people being hurt or killed, that’s a win.”