How Social Networks and Mobile Tech Helped in Haiti

Today is the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, which killed an estimated 230,000 people and has left millions of others homeless. As in some other recent catastrophes, social media such as Twitter, text messaging, interactive online maps and other tools such as crowdsourcing were used by both victims and rescue workers to co-ordinate relief efforts. But did they help? The Knight Foundation has released a comprehensive study of the use of technology during the aftermath of the quake, and found that while there is still a lot of work to be done, such tools can make rescue efforts and aid far easier and faster.

Haiti quickly became what the report describes as “a living laboratory for new applications such as SMS, interactive online maps and radio-cell phone hybrids.” But while many of the tools were extremely useful in transmitting crucial information, this information often wasn’t used as well as it could have been, for a variety of reasons. The report notes:

As new media activists have pointed out, “Technology is easy, community is hard.” Many of the obstacles to the relief efforts concerned difficulties in dialogue between communities: between international organizations and local Haitian groups, between volunteers and professional humanitarian organizations and between civilians and military.


While the democratic approach to information management fuels crowdsourcing, this characteristic can also serve as a limitation in crisis settings. Information may be gathered and assembled in an open, democratic fashion. But often the practical response effort is driven by large organizations that deal with information in a radically different way. Military and international humanitarian organizations manage information within more closed systems.

One of the most powerful new-media and online tools used in the relief efforts, the Knight report says, was Ushahidi — a service that was developed in Kenya in 2007, and can be used to aggregate and process information that comes in from a variety of sources such as SMS, Twitter and radio, and then plot the information on a map. The service “developed an RSS feed for the U.S. Coast Guard to help them retrieve emergency information [and] a team of four to eight Coast Guard responders retrieved the information and disseminated it to forces on the ground.” A group of students at Georgia Tech’s School of Computer Science converted the Ushahidi data to Google Earth (s goog) file formats.

Crowdsourcing also played a large role in the aftermath of the disaster, the report says. Two weeks after the earthquake, the labor-on-demand company CrowdFlower took over management of the workflow of volunteers to “translate, classify and geocode the messages” coming in via the short-code 4636. Later, an outsourcing company called Samasource took over the bulk of the translation and coding work in co-operation with a local Haiti-based group. And accurate maps of the country and the location of survivors and victims were also crowdsourced using the OpenStreetMap standard.

One of the biggest problems of crisis response in developing countries lies in finding locations that do not appear on any maps. In some cases, the maps have never been made; in others, rural populations have crowded into urban areas so quickly that maps soon become outdated. These problems were addressed in Haiti by another notable development in information technology: the OpenStreetMap (OSM) Haiti mapping initiative.

Although social media and other tools were important, the report makes a point of cautioning that the Haiti relief effort shouldn’t be seen as a “new-media success story,” because some of the new approaches used did not work very well, due to a lack of co-ordination — and in many cases a lack of understanding of how to use the tools. For example, U.S. Air Force Col. Lee Harvis, the chief medical officer who landed in Port-au-Prince 36 hours after the earthquake, said he had no knowledge of Ushahidi, and neither did any of the other military doctors operating in the country.

The Knight Foundation report (which was co-produced with Internews) also noted that despite all the new media tools, the single most important tool in Haiti was one that has also been crucial in almost every other major disaster in the past 50 years: namely, traditional radio broadcasting. However, the report’s authors noted that social media and other tools helped spread the information farther than radio would otherwise have been able, and that this was an important aspect of the relief efforts.

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Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier