Pulling together in a crisis

The earthquake that hit the island of Haiti in January 2010, and the humanitarian disaster that followed, triggered an unprecedented outpouring of aid.

Individuals, governments and businesses donated billions of dollars. Volunteers and humanitarian agencies descended on the island to help Haiti’s stricken population and to repair the country’s obliterated infrastructure.

This spontaneous wave of people and resources called for careful coordination, and a number of information technologies were put to work. The Haiti relief effort provided a showcase for these technologies, many of which were used again in response to subsequent disasters.

As a recently published report from the United Nations found, the Haiti relief effort demonstrated the power of web-based technologies to support complex operations in real-time, even in the most challenging of environments.
But it also highlighted the risk of information overload at a time when focus and strong leadership are of the essence, and underlined the importance of telecommunications infrastructure, without which these tools would be of little use.

Volunteer development

One of the tools used in Haiti was Ushahidi, an open source tool that allows users to report events via text message, and for those reports to be located on an online map. The tool was originally developed in Kenya as a method of reporting incidents of electoral corruption.

In Haiti, eyewitnesses used Ushahidi to report events such as sightings of survivors who were trapped under collapsed buildings. Using the GPS coordinates of the phone that the text messages were sent from, these sightings were mapped online, allowing volunteers to send relief resources to where they were needed most. Ushahidi played a similar role in coordinating relief following the earthquake in Chile a month later.

What is particularly remarkable about Ushahidi, and many of the other disaster relief tools that have recently emerged, is that it was developed by volunteers – programmers who give their free time to build applications that can save lives.

These tools are the work of loosely coupled organisations such as CrisisCamp, a community of volunteer developers that organises networking events around the world. Its members collaborate on prototype methods for aggregating and understanding crisis data and build applications to help organise disaster response teams. The tools that CrisisCamp members donated to the Haiti relief effort ranged from a mobile application that translates text messages from Haitian Creole into English to an entire online social network for relief workers.

In January 2011, a year after the earthquake, the United Nations Foundation, along with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and the non-profit Vodafone Foundation, published the preliminary findings of an investigation into how volunteer-built technologies shaped relief efforts in Haiti.

“Some of these efforts made a visible difference in the way that the response efforts unfolded,” writes the report’s author, John Crowley, a research fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. “Others proved that non-traditional actors – technologists who work outside humanitarian operations and volunteer their time – could build applications that approached problems in novel ways, even when those tools could not be integrated into the operations in Haiti.”

Information overload

The report highlights the particular importance of mobile telecommunications, especially SMS, during emergency situations. In Haiti, the ubiquity of mobile services provided an easily accessible channel for affected citizens to communicate with aid workers.

But while the abundance of information technologies available supported vital communications, it also produced a massive torrent of data. Upon arriving in Haiti in January 2010, aid workers were presented with a “perfect storm of information management challenges”, the UN Foundation report notes.

Much of the baseline data relating to the country and its citizens – in paper and digital formats – had been destroyed as a result of the earthquake and its aftershocks. Humanitarian workers and volunteers first of all faced the task of re-establishing some of the data that was already lost.

The study implies that the added responsibility of managing and reacting to data streams from volunteer-developed platforms “created an overwhelming sense of information overload” for aid workers, ultimately complicating their work.

Another challenge identified by the UN report was the public nature of these web-based relief management tools. The information presented on systems such as Ushahidi is available not only to aid workers but any interested Internet user.

Crowley argues that visualising the data in such an open forum raises the public’s expectations of the recovery effort, which in turn increases the not-inconsiderable pressure on aid workers on the ground. “These narratives are visible in near real time to donors and other stakeholders,” he writes, “who can exert pressure on NGOs and other members of humanitarian operations”.

Despite these reservations, the UN Foundation study concludes that new, socially developed technologies will be a permanent fixture in disaster relief efforts from now on. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of humanitarian agencies to figure out how to make best use them. “Volunteer communities will continue to act and mobilise,” the report notes, “regardless of policies to foster or discourage them.”

Blindspots in Pakistan

That said, not all disaster relief efforts attract the same degree of volunteer technological support as the Haiti earthquake.

In late July 2010, heavy monsoon rains caused extensive flooding across Pakistan, leaving nearly 2,000 people dead and causing $43 billion worth of damage to homes and infrastructure. According to some estimates, approximately one fifth of the country was under water at any given point during the crisis.

Despite its gravity, the disaster did not mobilise volunteer technical communities to the same extent Haiti had done six months previously.

“Volunteer organisations put in a huge amount of effort in Haiti, and unfortunately they used up a lot of their resources by the time Pakistan happened,” Crowley reports.

The use of the same relief support tools was also hindered by Pakistan’s technological infrastructure “There isn’t anywhere near the level of mobile phone adoption in the flooded areas of Pakistan as there was in Haiti,” Crowley explains.

He also notes that many of tools used in Haiti relied on the public availability of satellite imagery of the country. “In Pakistan, there was no open imagery,” he says. “It was not made publicly available by request of the government of Pakistan.” With no satellite imagery or detailed online maps, volunteer developers struggled to plot where relief was a priority, Crowley adds.

Crowley says that, though undoubtedly tragic circumstances, both disasters have provided learning experiences, both for humanitarian agencies and for the volunteer developers that have now become a partner in their relief efforts.

“A lot of learning has happened,” he concludes, “and hopefully it’s put us in a place where we can look at the next disaster and start wondering, ‘What can we do?’”

Peter Done

Peter Done is managing director of Peninsula Business Services, the personnel and employment law consultancy he set up having already built a successful betting shop business.

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