Students Create Website to Reunite Owners With Pets Displaced During Disasters

PHOTO: University of Colorado students Mario Barrenechea and Joanne White came up with the idea for EmergencyPetMatcher in 2011.Project EPIC
University of Colorado students Mario Barrenechea and Joanne White came up with the idea for EmergencyPetMatcher in 2011.

Finding a pet lost during a disaster might soon be as easy as a mouse-click thanks to students at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Doctoral students Mario Barrenechea, 25, and Joanne White, 45, developed their website, EmergencyPetMatcher, to help reunite owners and their pets displaced during major events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires.

Barrenechea, a computer science student from Massachusetts, and White, a Ph.D. candidate in the Alliance for Technology, Learning and Society program from Australia, said they first came up with the idea for the website in fall 2011.

“We were thinking about ... how information gets created and shared from the ground to social media,” Barrenechea told ABC News. “We were also thinking of what happens to pets during disasters. Pets get disconnected from their pet owners at different shelters. This is what happened in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina.”

After Hurricane Sandy, the two saw how social media, such as Facebook, became a platform for people to use to find lost items and pets.

“It’s really about the crowd,” Barrenechea said. “We see this as a crowd work situation … they can work with each other.”

Users can go on EmergencyPetMatcher and create a profile of a lost pet or of a found pet. Anyone can also propose that photos of a lost pet and a found pet are a match, which people can up-vote or down-vote. Once a match receives enough up-votes, an automatic email goes to both people who posted the photos of the lost pet and the found pet, suggesting that they contact each other.

PHOTO: EmergencyPetMatcher users can help match photos of lost pets to photos of found pets using an up-vote and down-vote system.Project EPIC
EmergencyPetMatcher users can help match photos of lost pets to photos of found pets using an up-vote and down-vote system.

“It’s very visually-led. It’s like a memory game. A lot of people propagate on social media after a disaster,” White told ABC News. “Everybody could get on this and play that sort of matching game.”

“We want everyone to be able to use it. We’re talking about 4th graders in elementary school ... to elderly citizens,” Barrencechea said.

While the website is ready to launch, it will only go live during the next disaster.

“We would deploy it for the entirety of an event, like a hurricane or a wildfire or an earthquake. It’s going to be a service. It’s reliable and scalable to the amount of people that use it,” said Barrencechea.

Barrenchea and White hope their website will provide a single location for people to help each other during the next disaster.

“A lot of people are looking for ways to help [during disasters]. It doesn’t matter where they are located in the world,” White said. “With this system … it allows them to be able to help."