Haiti: this is not a test

Do countries need a 911-type emergency response system? The situation in Haiti proves that this is not only necessary, but that it needs to be open for anyone to enter and access the data.

The response to the earthquake in Haiti had shown a radical shift in relief efforts. Rather than organizations with similar interests operating against one another with siloed information, we’ve seen collaboration on an impressive scale. The quiet premise is that openness will save peoples lives.

Social media has managed to be critical to this equation in two ways. Especially in the early hours of the crisis, but certainly throughout, it provides information in near real-time and available to anyone. It also provides real-time pressure to barriers interrupting relief efforts, whether individual, institutional, or logistical.

If there’s a tweet about people being trapped under rubble and no system to respond to it, does it still make a sound? The Ushahidi crisismapping system is largly responsible for filling this gap. It’s an ambitious attempt to take any info (tweets, facebook comments, SMS, newspaper clippings, radio, etc) in English, french and creole, and process it into a map for relief efforts on the ground to respond to. By crowdsourcing information, we are able to process more data than has ever been possible before, and convert this into something useful.


Crowds are not experts and with an outpouring of support and requests for volunteerism from social media networks, the question quickly became how to match the manpower needs of this system with people who want to help but have no prior knowledge or experience with the system, and in many cases with technology. Can this data not only be useful to people on the ground but to just arriving as well?

To do so effectively, it required the collective effort of experts with access to highly specialized information and of a crash course methodology for introduction to the field. Patrick Meier and Jen Ziemke coordinated the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping 3 months prior, which birthed theĀ  International Network of Crisis Mappers. A highly specialized knowledge base, this email group has been instrumental in coordinating efforts to find any and all available data on Haiti to work with – maps, addresses of hospitals, organizations being deployed, contacts, etc. To have the foremost deposit of info, one needs to be able to find it first.

It quickly became clear that even the most detailed information was not necssarily useful or hard to make useful because they weren’t machine-readable. People who have never been to Haiti were having a hard time mapping actual locations from satellite images and a bare Google map system. The Open Street Maps community quickly sprung into action and developed the most detailed map of Haiti available, carving out actual streets from satellite images, placing and naming important landmarks, and otherwise providing this info freely to the public freely and openly without the restrictions of a strict copyright license.

Vital in any crisis is locating missing persons. A lot of sites quickly sprang up to offer their services in helping to locate them. From Google to the New York Times to CNN to The Extraordinaries. Pulling pictures from social media and submissions to their own systems, there quickly emerged the concern that work was overlapping and some people were getting lost between the cracks. A coordinated effort between these organizations meant that their systems quickly became interoperable and shared info, thus making the search more efficient and effective, rather than forcing worried people to check many different systems as happened during Katrina and other disasters. Unfortunately, some groups like Facebook continue to silo information and prevent sharing. Other efforts that are providing different services on the ground (Sahana, etc) also enjoyed the benefits of collaboration at an impromptu set of Barcamps organized as Crisis Camp. In DC, it drew over a hundred volunteers to work together at the Sunlight Labs on a Saturday.

Social media and technology has provided an important check on companies too. Millions of dollars are being donated to Haiti via SMS messages in the US alone encouraged by users in social media networks offering an array of charities to donate to and means by which to do it. Users displayed an impressive amount of new media literacy, realizing the importance of verifying how much money was going to people on the ground and how much companies would be taking off the top as a “service fee”. Pressure to Western Union & credit card companies meant easing their strict fees, in some cases lifting them entirely. Groups like Google Voice & Digicel started to even offer free calls. Without the pressure social media has by offering an instant feedback loop on relief services, companies might have continued to profit heavily from this disaster, though as Naomi Klein points out, they are likely to when the media leaves.

The Haiti example is not the first attempt at an open and collective response system. Phillip Aslock writes about the issues of Open311 in New York. The NY Senate is also working on helping create systems for relief to the large Haitian community in the city. But in places that have old systems that need to be updated, the ability to streamline and coordinate will take much longer. It will be interesting to see how the systems in NY will be able to benefit from Haiti and vice versa.

The future brings both the challenges of dead data and protectionism as well as an opportunity for more coordination and openness. Depending on the successes from Haiti, organizations will see what makes the most sense and work together to coordinate before emergencies and not only in high risk situations but in test modes. While it was thrilling to figure out how to streamline the systems in an emergency, to really work, this will fundamentally change the way that countries, non-profits and relief organizations work, based on transparency and supported by accountability. The earthquake in Haiti might have sparked the movement to get this all going.


  1. January 18, 2010 at 9:06 pm · Reply

    Hey there, nice article, but I think positioning these services as a 911 is misguiding to your community of readers. 911s are about triggering response with definite expectations from the population from the agencies with accountability towards them. This is not what is going on here.

    And as member of the community of technologies working in the relief of the Haiti earthquake, I can attest that there is still a long ways to go to have clarity in interoperability, sharing, and the architecture of it all so that there is the least friction possible in helping get the data in the hands of the population.

    • Mark Belinsky
      January 18, 2010 at 11:37 pm · Reply

      Certainly a great point about definite expectations allowing for accountability. That’s vital for ensuring effectiveness to those being responded to.

      What I meant by 911 is an emergency telephone number connected to a public safety answering point. Creating one entry point that has interoperability has a lot of potential. I’ve been visualizing the situation room at Tufts sort of as a number of telephone operators working on a switchboard. Some of this process has been automated now, but a lot is working with individuals to plot info onto a map or to get it to the right organization. Educating users on what organizations those are and streamlining the process of understanding who is doing what on the ground is going to evolve as these systems do and as we exit emergency mode where solutions are scraped together.

      I’m sure many issues will arise as that happens, not least of which being privacy, particularly in the medical field and one reason why the InStedd work is so vital. It’ll be great to see how “friction” gets worked out.

  2. January 19, 2010 at 8:36 am · Reply

    Agree Mark. In my experience, the friction disappears by doing these things together and analyzing retrospectively what happened and taking the lessons forward. That’s why I think events like Strong Angel are essential to the community of professionals and amateurs doing this. We (the big we) spend too little time practicing and rehearsing, and then expectedly there’s too much reactive doing. The problem is not being reactive in itself – you always learn and need to adapt and innovate on the fly – the issue is reacting on aspects that are well understood a priori. With better preparation, we can use those first hours/days focusing on what’s unique about the situation instead of predictable things.

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