Haiti Earthquake Prompts Tech Aid

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The devastating earthquake that hit the Caribbean nation of Haiti on January 12 was a huge tragedy for the country’s people and for the large international aid community, including the United Nations. But the disaster has seen the use of new information technologies – often assembled by volunteers – to bridge the gaps in critical information and bring a semblance of order to the chaos of a large disaster. And many of the technologies being used in Haiti now arose from past disasters and crises in the South.

Remarkable stories from the disaster include a woman who used her mobile phone to text message Canadian officials she was trapped and needed rescue, to a filmmaker who used an application on his iPhone (http://www.apple.com/iphone/) to treat his wounds: “I was able to look up treatment of excessive bleeding and compound fracture, so I used my shirt to tie my leg and a sock on the back of my head and later used it for other things like to diagnose shock,” claimed Dan Woolley to NBC Miami.

Measuring 7.0 in magnitude (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_Haiti_earthquake), the quake killed over 212,000 people, injured 300,000 and affected more than 3 million out of Haiti’s population of 9 million. Hundreds of thousands have lost their homes and are now dependent on food aid to survive. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and is ranked 149th of 182 countries on the Human Development Index.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, communications were knocked out and it was difficult to grasp the scale of the disaster. Major infrastructure was either severely damaged or completely destroyed.

The public telephone system went down, and the two largest cell phone providers, Digicel and Comcel Haiti, were both disrupted. Most radio stations went off the air in the immediate aftermath and a week later, just 20 of the 50 stations in Port-au-Prince were back on air.

This represented the worst of all scenarios for disaster response: not only was the scale of the tragedy enormous, but existing government structures and the large international aid mission were equally badly hit. First responders and the government’s infrastructure were paralyzed in the hours after the disaster and it took some time for the aid response to build to significant levels.

But while communications were down in the country, outside it was a different story: people around the world were using the internet and mobile phones to begin piecing together the e-response to the earthquake.

After the disaster, technology-savvy volunteers around the world kicked into action to find ways to help. They have built software to aid in tracking people, using technology to map the disaster area and ways to use mobile phone text messages to find the missing.

Kenya’s Ushahidi (www.ushahidi.com) is a free software mashup (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mashup_%28web_application_hybrid%29) born after the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007 and 2008. It gathers citizen-generated crisis information – SMS (text messages), email or web resources – and then places the information on a map or timeline. It is put together by volunteers from Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Malawi, the Netherlands and the United States.

Ushahidi’s founder is Kenyan Ory Okolloh, and the first version of the software for download is called “Mogadishu,” after the capital of Somalia.

It was put to use in Haiti (http://haiti.ushahidi.com/reports/submit) as users populated its online maps and timelines with information on the location of people in need of food and water, those trapped in rubble or those in need of medical attention. It is a real-time reporting system for people in a disaster, offering a way for people in need to broadcast to the outside world.

Sample reports on the timeline look like this (http://haiti.ushahidi.com/reports): ” SOS food, water and care needed in the Bertin Zone of Carrefour S.O.S. for the people of Carefour in the Bertin area, Titus Road, Froide River, these people haven’t recieved anything yet like water, food, care.”

“Alive under the Rubble of Bar Lakay Restaurant, Ave. Christophe 6633. Carole Joseph is alive under the rubble of the Bar Lakay restaurant on Avenue Christophe.”

The UN estimates there are more than 900 non-governmental organizations operating in Haiti. One of the best ways to try and coordinate this large aid response is through innovative information technology.

The Ushahidi software has spawned many creative variations to track a wide range of problems. In the Philippines, TXTpower (http://www.cp-union.com/ushahidi/) is put together by the Computer Professionals’ Union to keep an eye on mobile phone companies and their business practices. In Mexico, a mashup (http://www.cuidemoselvoto.org/) was put together for the 2009 federal elections. Stop Stockouts (http://stopstockouts.org/) keeps track of near real-time pharmacy and medical supplies in health facilities and pharmacies in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia.

In San Diego, California, computer programmer Tim Schwartz quickly contacted his network of fellow programmers to address the problem of information being spread too widely across many web sources. In a few hours they put together http://www.haitianquake.com, a way for people to post and locate missing relatives.

It was online in less than 24 hours. It was followed by many other similar services and they were merged into a service eventually put together by Google called PersonFinder two days later. Google’s PersonFinder grew to have more than 32,000 missing people listed.

Another response has been Crisis Camps (http://crisiscampmiami.org/) in London England and cities across the United States. Technology workers got together to brainstorm relevant solutions to help the aid effort, and developed tools including Tweak the Tweet, Port Au Prince Basemap (up-to-date data on what his happening on the ground), The Haiti Timeline (developing a real-time history of events as they unfold), Family Reunification Systems, crisis wikis (http://crisiscommons.org/wiki/index.php?title=Crisis_Wiki), Mobile Applications 4 Crisis Response, translation (Creole to English for example), Mapping NGOs in Action (in the chaos of a crisis, this seeks to track what NGOs are working where), We Need, We Have Exchange (a way to post requests for resources or help).

“It really is amazing the change in the way crisis response can be done now,” Noel Dickover, a Washington, DC-based organiser of the Crisis Camp tech volunteer movement, told The Independent newspaper.

“Developers, crisis mappers and even internet-savvy folks can actually make a difference.”

Josh Nesbit is a co-creator of a text message service for mobile phones that is being used by international organizations like the United Nations and the Red Cross. Haitians are able to send free text messages from mobile phones on the country’s Digicel service. The messages include requests for water and food. The messages are organized and tagged with key words by volunteers in the Haitian community in New York City, and Haitian radio stations promote the service. It was developed based on similar systems already running in hospitals in Malawi.

In Haiti, mobile phone networks were back up and running within a few days – many within 24 hours. Haiti is poor, but it nonetheless has impressive mobile phone ownership rates: one-in-three people has one.

OpenStreetMap (http://www.openstreetmap.org/) is another excellent resource in a disaster and represents a significant step forward in helping people to respond. Real time data is uploaded to satellite photographs of the disaster area and people then can add updates on the location of working hospitals or where infrastructure has been damaged. The information comes in by many forms, from the micro-blogging service Twitter (www.twitter.com) to eyewitness reports.

Reports from Haiti have talked of rescue teams uploading the maps to their GPS (global positioning system) devices for easy access, or printing then in A4 form to carry around.

The utility of this service has been confirmed by many working on helping Haiti. “We have already been using their data in our initial post-disaster needs assessment,” Stuart Gill of the World Bank told The Independent.

Dutch mobile phone maker Intivation (http://www.intivation.nl/) is distributing for free solar-powered mobile phones in Haiti to help with aid efforts and is launching the phones for sale around the world as well.

Resources

1) SMS activism: A blog report on how people are using SMS text messaging in the developing world. Website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/katine/katine-chronicles-blog/2010/feb/02/mobile-phone-sms-uprising

2) The Magazine Popular Mechanics has excellent resources on how anyone can prepare their family and community for disasters. Website: http://www.popularmechanics.com/survival/

3) The US Government has extensive resources online on how to prepare for a wide variety of natural and man-made disasters. Website: http://www.fema.gov/areyouready/

4) UNICEF: Community-Based Disaster Preparedness Projects (CBDPs) in India have been helping communities restructure to survive when disaster strikes. Website: http://www.unicef.org.uk/campaigns

5) How to activate support from the global technology community in a disaster. Website: http://crisiscommons.org/

6) International Community on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management: They will be having their conference on Defining Crisis Management 3.0 from May 2-5, 2010 in Seattle Washington USA. Website: http://www.iscram.org/

7) Telecoms Sans Frontiers: Focuses on providing communications in the first days after an emergency. Website: http://www.tsfi.org/

8) InSTEDD NGO: InSTEDD’s mission is to harness the power of technology to improve collaboration for global health and humanitarian action. An innovation lab for tools designed to strengthen networks, build community resilience and improve early detection and response to major health-related events and natural or human-caused disasters. Website: http://instedd.org/

9) Web mash-ups: Programmable Web website offers all the resources required to get started. Website: www.programmableweb.com/

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