What can a bunch of volunteers do with spirit, know-how and infrastructure? A lot, it turns out. Last weekend’s series of Crisis Camps resulted in a series of amazing new tools, which are being refined and deployed as I write, for coordinating post-disaster relief in Haiti.
Much of social media’s potential is in the way it can enhance how we cooperate, coordinate and collaborate. This is a story of swift, efficient and consequential global citizen-action in response to the Haiti earthquake.
Current level of diffusion and technological abilities mobile devices is uniquely suited to address a very important problem in crisis response: coordination, coordination, and coordination.
Around January 12th, the usual, light-hearted trending topics on Twitter suddenly got serious. First, news spread that Miep Gies, the woman who probably did more than anyone to try to save Anne and was only able to save her words, died at the age of 100. Then, in the afternoon, a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti, one of the most impoverished nations in the world. As estimates of hundreds of thousands of deads began flying around, the chatter on global streams social media turned into a mix of appeals for help, prayers, shock, horror, anguish and well-wishes. For a few hours, it seemed, the world was somber in unison.
In the last few years, three major transformations in the post-disaster experience have taken place:
1- Citizen journalism: The Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Haitian earthquake and all recent major disasters and crises, such as the Mumbai killings, all were reported first and foremost through messages from affected people. Pictures, videos, sounds flew around the world, first mostly through Twitter, but also through Facebook, other social networking sites, as well as “social media” streams of most major news organizations which retweeted, rebroadcast and resent citizen reports.
2- Social media driven financial aid: Red Cross, Unicef and other organizations collected massive amount of donations by text messages, as they had for the Tsunami. These donations were quickly texted and generally portioned as $10. The democratization of aid had started with the the Asian Tsunami when many organizations recorded their highest level of donations by the public, and reached a new high. (Incidentally, this micro-financing of macro causes is not limited to disasters. The election of Barack Obama was another recent example. It is yet unclear whether the micro-financers will find a way to translate this into influence the way traditional financiers, corporations, foundations, etc. do quite succesfully).
3- Information technology powered relief: This is often less noticed than the above two, but it is probably a very significant development and the one I intend to write about at some length.
Current level of diffusion and technological abilities of mobile devices is uniquely suited to address a very important problem in crisis response: coordination, coordination, and coordination. Relief efforts after disasters are hampered by lack of supplies, loss of key people, insufficient machinery, blocked roads, bottlenecked transportation and the like. Hovering over all of this is lack of coordination and efficient information flow that results in anguish, wasted effort, and an increase in the death toll. Rapid flow of supplies and personnel is only half the equation. Without coordination, much gets wasted.
Why aren’t there existing tools to address this issue? A group of people from the tech community asked themselves the same questions and decided to do something about it. A series of “Crisis Camps” were organized around the United States. These are day-long event that bring together a largely techie crowd who collectively and quicky work on new tools, refine existing ones, and plan for the future. I attended last weekend’s Crisis Camp in D.C and want to explain why such efforts are really important and what is being done.
I was on the ground for two weeks with rescue teams in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 Earthquake in Izmit and experienced the issue first hand. Many rescue teams had arrived hoping certain amount of minor things could be provided locally. Everyone has extra of something, while most groups are missing a piece here or there as it is almost impossible to anticipate and transport everything you may possibly need ormay break. This one needed lamps; that one needed fuel; this one had no transportation arranged; that one needed some bolts to fix their jackhammer. In the meantime, there might be extra fuel sitting in the back of the truck somewhere, if only someone else knew about it.
This is a matter of life and death as everything is running on generators: the jack-hammer that is cutting away concrete trapping the child under rubble, the light at operating room at the remaining functioning clinic, the bus that is ferrying the wounded. Coordinating this is not easy because you have a population that has experienced a massive loss and is shell-shocked; you have rescuers from dozens of different countries who have just landed and most of whom have not slept in the past day, and will not for the next; and there is no central authority, government, or institution that is aware of everything. By the way, maps are mostly useless because not all roads are passable. Cell phones work intermittently, landlines often don’t, and satellite phones are available but limited to the foreign groups.
And that’s when you wish there was a little local, accessible, Craigslist: I have this, I need that. Wouldn’t it be great if it operated through twitter, text-messaging, and whatever else was available and all the groups had access to it? “We need an extra stand-alone lamp.” “We have some extra antibiotics we can share.” “Does anyone have a spare tire fixing kit?”
Yes, why isn’t there something like that? Isn’t it painfully obvious by now that this is needed after every disaster?
Next time, there might be one because that’s one of the projects undertaken at Crisis Camp last weekend: an I need/ I have app. That is not the only application that is being created. Another is a layered map of Port-au-Prince which gets updated as people in Haiti text (via a free text message) location-specific information. That, too, is a matter of life and death. Rescue teams spend as much time looking to find someone alive as they do extricating them. It will be immensely useful to have that kind information diffused quickly. There is another layer to the problem, though: people whose loved ones are under the rubble often think they have heard sounds when there might not be any. This is part of the devastating tragedy of an earthquake: hope lingers on, often in vain, but sometimes miraculously vindicated. Most teams use dogs or special equipment to listen for sounds of life. Perhaps this new tool, haiti.ushaidi.com, can also be used to identify buildings that have been thoroughly checked so that the teams can move on to buildings that have not. This is no easy task: family members will cling to each and every rescue team, insisting they have heard noices. (Veterans of post-disaster operations call this ghost chasing). Remember this is in the middle of a devastated city and there is no central coordinating authority. A building may thus be checked many times, sadly spending time repeating hopeless efforts when there might still be survivors under another collapsed structure, waiting to be discovered. Now teams could use this tool to mark where they have been and to identify places which need attention.
Other applications that were quickly developed include a Creole-English translator that can work in mobile devices. A centralized missing-person finder was also developed and launched. The problem was that a multitude of missing persons lists were started by most major news organizations, the Red Cross (two days after the earthquake so there was a gap which was filled by other groups), mom-and-pop blogs, twitter streams, citizen websites and the like. Most of these were merged over the last week and a widget was developed that can be embedded on any website which then places the data in a single depository hosted by Google. This, too, is incredibly important as you can imagine how harrowing it all must be for survivors searching for their loved ones. Anything that speeds up and coordinates that process is valuable. Currently everyone from the State department to the New York Times is using that widget and the depository is all in one place.
A team mostly from Colorado is creating a standardized hashtag format for Twitter (Tweak the Tweet) so that the stream of messages that pass through twitter, which range from prayers and well-wishes to urgent requests such as water for children in an orphanage or a report of a survivor under the rubble, can be sorted through quickly. In another project, a wiki is being organized for crisis related information, but this will be no ordinary wiki. It is being shaped through a semantic web approach so that when the next crisis hits, the organizers will be able to quickly pull relevant information by using an appropriate template for the type of crisis and its location. For example, a hurricane wiki will have different organizations compared to an earthquake wiki, and a crisis in South America will pull regional organizations as well as multinational groups.
These are just some of the projects. For a full list, check out the Crisis Commons web page. There is a lot that can be done, even by people who are not techies. This Saturday, there will be more Crisis Camps, in Boston, Boulder, Los Angeles, Miami, Montreal, New Orleans, Portland, Seattle, Silicon Valley, Washington D.C., New York and Bogota, Colombia. (Follow it on twitter via hashtag #cchaiti or follow @crisiscamp). These are great events to experience and most people will find something useful to do regardless of their skill level but developers are especially useful. Be warned: it’s all business all day and not a good place for people with egos that can’t be put aside, at least for a day.
I think the Haiti earthquake will be a turning point. Next time a disaster hits, these tools will already be there. And all of this happened because a group of people took it upon themselves to do it. I am well aware of all the ways in which the Internet has not changed everything that the utopians among us have us believe. But this is one instance in which what has happened is just, well, awesome.
I can only wish for a similar level of energy, cooperation and solidarity among the global community as it hopefully finds the resolve and the spirit to stand with Haiti, as this battered nation, the only one in the world where the slaves freed themselves, struggles to recover, heal and stand tall.
Jan 24: P.S. As an example of the cost of lack of coordination, check out this paragraph in Friday’s New York Times:
“American rescue teams were among the first to experience the knot of troubles. Usually, when they set down in a country after a natural disaster, the local government has already identified buildings where there are known survivors so they can race to the scene. But here, without government input, they had to drive through the city themselves, making snap assessments about where survivors were likely to be found.
They had trouble getting their equipment; its arrival at the airport was delayed for several days. Then they faced a shortage of vehicles, gas and drivers at the United States Embassy.”
The rescue team from Miami Dade is first stalled because it doesn’t have vehicles, gas and drivers, and then, it is driving around the city, making “snap assessments” about where survivors might be. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, there might be a person trapped under the rubble who was heard calling for help but cannot be dug out without equipment. Miami Dade may be working on a building that the Czech team already looked at yesterday. If these tools had been up before the quake, people and rescue teams could have coordinated via text messages which would appear on a layered map of Haiti.