Ethan Zuckerman is one of the best bloggers in the world; he must get paid by Harvard to do it, or something. (He does.)
His musing last week on the ICT/geek community's response to the Katrina relief effort is a fascinating look at how we can potentially respond with the full weight of technology's resources.
Most notably, Ethan has been recently instrumental in organizing and developing the Katrina Peoplefinder database (in record time, no less), which exceeded 100,000 entries in the first week of September. I think that this is, for once, an example of how activism in a purely digital sense can in fact be utterly essential, not a trival, isolated indulgence.
Please Note: This database (at http://www.katrinalist.com) still has a growing amount of data; you can still volunteer to enter data remotely (from anywhere in the world, in your pajamas, at The Katrina Peoplefinder Wiki.
What is amazing is that this activism has been the work of a very loosely organized group of more than 2,000 people all over the world. The work done by organizers was largely administrative - they assigned various "chunks" of data from fragmented bulletin boards to volunteers who put standardized information into a central database. This I think, was impressively smart, and it needs to be replicated in many other contexts, present and future.
And I believe that the folks involved in the development of the project are acutely aware of this need, and they are taking admirable leadership roles. Online code guru Dave Weiner wrote, for example, about the need of a standardized, open, XML format for transmitting data about missing people. A day later, there it was, the People Finder Interchange Format.
These developments have rediscovered the power of existing technologies. Innovative uses of our everyday-geek tools - including VOIP phones, podcasts, wikis, weblogs, SMS text messages and databases - can affect change in the world. Really, they can. But in the highly developed world we are accustomed to treating them as though they were simply luxuries, toys. I commend the folks who have done so much in the last few weeks toward making them real, social tools.
Ethan Zuckerman's fascinating post reviewing the online post-Katrina relief effort is here: