Page last updated at 00:17 GMT, Wednesday, 29 April 2009 01:17 UK

Microsoft keeps tabs in a crisis

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Vine has been likened to Twitter for emergencies

Microsoft has launched a trial product to connect users to the people and places they care about especially when crisis hits.

The company said the main inspiration for Vine came from Hurricane Katrina.

The product is designed to keep family and friends in touch when other communications fail or falter.

The Seattle Times has described this hyper local, personalised message and alert system as "Twitter + Facebook on steroids".

In a slick video, Microsoft demonstrates a number of ways the service could be used.

In one example, "Doug" is planning a trip to the mountains but a constant deluge of rain means schools in his local area are forced to close and the community is put on high alert.

Using Vine, Doug keeps in touch with friends and family and with what is going on locally to make sure everyone stays safe.

Another example includes "Dave" whose wife goes into early labour and uses Vine to make sure the neighbours keep an eye on his house, take the dog out for a walk and cancel baseball practice.

Microsoft said the aim is to keep people connected. Brier Dudley of the Seattle Times said the critical audience are those involved in emergencies.

"Microsoft's main emphasis now is providing Vine to emergency management officials, who are intrigued by a new tool that could be used to broadcast and receive information during a disaster or other major event."

"Superhero software"

Vine works by downloading a "dashboard" application using Windows Live ID. Users say where they live or where they are at any given moment and information from 20,000 local and national news sources links to that location.

Flooding in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (file picture)
The hurricane crippled the city and communication networks

Information is also provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

Users can also view and post alerts in a variety of forms from quick messages to longer reports.

"Microsoft Vine aims to create an inclusive network so that ultimately anyone can participate, though a social networking application such as Twitter or Facebook or using e-mail, any computer connected to the internet, or a mobile phone, kitchen phone or special needs device," said the software giant.

Initial reaction to the service, which has been described as "societal networking" has been positive.

CNET's Caroline McCarthy has dubbed it "superhero software".

But she said "all joking aside, the web's biggest players are gunning for a way to appropriately harness social media for emergency preparedness.

"Google's non profit arm has launched a project called Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disaster (inSTEDD) with similar goals, and Google has invested $5 million in it."

The service is currently in beta which means Microsoft is looking for people to sign up to try it out and give feedback.

The company, which is testing Vine initially in Seattle, is hoping to recruit 10,000 people to put it through its paces.

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