March 18, 2011 -- A team of computer geeks in the U.K. is taking the term "tech support" to a whole new level with a website that helps earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan recover lost belongings.
Built in just two days by eight humanitarian-minded programmers and entrepreneurs, BelongingsFinder.com is like an online lost and found.
People who stumble upon others' personal belongings can upload pictures and descriptions of what they've found to the site, and people who are seeking their belongings can submit descriptions of lost items. When the site spots a match, it connects the two parties.
The site, which launched Sunday, grew out of a Startup Weekend event in Cambridge, England -- an all-consuming 54-hour affair in which teams build Web and mobile applications.
Stefano Orowitsch, 26, the team leader behind BelongingsFinder runs a car-sharing start-up in the Netherlands. Orowitsch said he had intended to spend the weekend on his own compan, but when news broke about the tragedy in Japan, he said he wanted to do something to "show solidarity."
1,300-Year-Old Law Requires People to Turn in Lost Items Within Five Days
"We heard the devastating news about the earthquake in Japan and I couldn't see myself working on my own company," said Orowitsch, who is a German technology policy student at the University of Cambridge. "I really wanted to do something that's going to help these people, not just for the weekend but into the future."
When the team first met, he said, they were big on talent but low on ideas. So they started researching and came across some information that sparked a collective light-bulb moment.
They discovered that Japan has a 1,300-year-old law that requires people to hand in lost property to police or established lost-and-found centers within five days. And, in 2002, according to a New York Times article they unearthed, $23 million in cash was returned to a Tokyo lost and found center.
"This is a society that is so honest, you can't top it, basically," he said. "It was such a striking thing. We were like, 'that's amazing.'"
Site Won Social Enterprise Award at Start-Up Event
So, to essentially replace the damaged or destroyed lost-and-found locations and police stations in the distaster-hit areas, Orowitsch said, his team launched BelongingsFinder.
The site impressed the Startup Weekend judges so much that it won the top prize in social enterprise.
But Orowitsch emphasized that he and his partners are in it for the long haul. They are continuing to refine the non-profit, humanitarian site and are adding functions to allow corporations and individuals to donate money to help support the site. The money will go to hiring people who can describe the found items, to make it easier for the site's text-based algorithms to match the finders and seekers. (Any extra money will be donated to non-profit organizations working in the area.)
The site will also include a way for individuals to donate their time to help describe the items, he said. (In the meantime, anyone interested in helping can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Ultimately, Orowitsch said his team would like to create a tool that can help relief organizations in Japan and other areas struck by natural disasters. Over time, the data collected by the site could help in the creation of models that show how disasters disperse items, which could hopefully aid recovery efforts, he said.
But first, the focus is on Japan, and Orowitsch said the site hasn't yet been promoted in that country. Unless further nuclear complications arise, he said, the site will launch in Japan next week.
"We felt it was inappropriate immediately," he said. "First, find your lost ones. Then see that you get food and water and then, in the coming year, we're going to think about your belongings."
"The target we have is if we can get 10,000 items back to the people who owned them. If we do that we've been a massive success," he said.