How Mapping, SMS Platforms Saved Lives in Haiti Earthquake

This article was written near the one year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. I originally saw it as a news story on the CBC, but in doing further research I came across this detailed analysis and critical look at the role of communications and mobile technologies in natural disasters and crisis situations, and specific innovations that emerged as a result of the situation in Haiti. Be sure to check out the infographic that explains the ecosystem of SMS alerts, the Ushahidi crisis mapping application, local media and medical and humanitarian relief efforts. Amazing.

Here’s an excerpt:

“The most notable innovations to emerge from Haiti were: the translation of crowdsourced data to actionable information; the use of SMS message broadcasting in a crisis; and crowdsourcing of open maps for humanitarian application,” according to the report. A dizzying array of new media and information technology groups, Haitian diaspora networks and media development partners were involved in these initiatives (see the infographic below). Although these innovations had varying levels of impact in Haiti, they showcased the potential for use in future crises.

haitiResponse_final_03.jpg

One of the most notable developments was the application of Ushahidi, an online crisis mapping platform that was born only a few years earlier in Kenya. Ushahidi had already been used to map political violence, but it had not yet been used in the context of large-scale natural disasters. When the earthquake struck, an ad hoc coalition quickly took shape, anchored by a group of graduate students at Tufts University in Boston.

The Ushahidi teams, supported by translators from the Haitian diaspora community in the U.S., gathered information from news reports and individuals about the most acute needs on the ground: rescue, food and water, and security, among others. The coordinates were placed on a map and made available to rescue and relief teams.

Soon they were able to include SMS texts in their bank of information. A few days after the quake, Digicel, one of Haiti’s leading telecom companies, agreed to offer a free short code (4636) for SMS texts in service of the relief efforts, with the help of InSTEDD, a technology focused humanitarian organization. The four-digit code enabled cell phone users to send free messages to central information centers about missing persons and emergency needs. SMS messages and direct reports from Haitian citizens began to flow within four days of the quake.

OpenStreetMaps, an open community of volunteer mappers, joined the effort to create online maps of Haiti’s improvised and unnamed neighborhoods. These maps became the standard reference points: Users included not just information technology platforms such as Ushahidi, but also large providers of humanitarian services, such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC).

The full article can be found here.

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