Page last updated at 12:59 GMT, Wednesday, 9 September 2009 13:59 UK

Smart tech reconnects Colombians

By Dave Lee
BBC World Service

A family walks along the street of Altos de la Florida shantytown
Many families end up living on the outskirts of cities such as Bogota

"Semantic web technology" is being used to reconnect Colombians displaced in the country's civil conflict.

The international team aim to use smart technology to allow people to search currently incompatible databases of missing persons.

By the end of 2008, it was estimated that there were 4.3 million displaced people in Colombia - around 10% of the country's population.

The researchers also hope to use online social networks to help unite people.

"The displaced population in Colombia is the most vulnerable because their fundamental rights are massively violated," Juan Sequeda, who works on the project, told the BBC World Service's Digital Planet programme.

"Their [physical] social networks are weakened."

He believes the online tools can also help rebuild physical relationships.

"The displaced population lose their 'social tissue' at the moment they are separated," he said.

Semantic web

Many of Colombia's displaced people have been caught up in the country's violent conflicts involving armed guerrilla groups or the drug cartels.

Many have lost all of their assets, belongings and land, ending up in slums outside the cities.

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Often families are split up in the process. When this happens, they are told to register their details on a national database - known as the unique registry of displaced persons - set up by the Colombian government.

However, other registries have been set up by NGO groups - such as the Red Cross - meaning the displaced millions are spread over several databases.

Frustratingly for those who have lost connection with their families, these databases don't "talk" to each other or share information.

So, while one brother may be on one database, the other may be registered elsewhere, reducing their chances of being reunited.

This means for many Colombians, being displaced from their home can mean losing contact with friends and relatives for years, even if they live in the same city.

Researchers aim to solve this problem by creating a "semantic knowledge layer", which will link crucial information (such as names, addresses, age, etc.) across all the databases.

Semantic technology is seen by some as the next step for the world wide web, as it allows a much richer understanding of huge data sets.

In Colombia, this should mean that searching for specific people will be more effective and allow people to ask complex queries such as "how many cousins do I have in Bogota?".

"It's all about how you integrate data," said Mr Sequeda.

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