Haiti Earthquake: 5 Articles Reflect on Information Technology in Large-Scale Disasters

US Navy 100201-N-7653W-206 Haitian citizens qu...

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Post by: Kim Stephens

On this anniversary of the Haitian earthquake it might be easy to dismiss the catastrophe as an event in an undeveloped country with no obvious implications for US domestic response and emergency management. But these five articles relay interesting take-aways from the response, particularly with regard to the effectiveness of efforts to use new and emerging technologies to aggregate, sort and analyse information coming directly from the affected population via text messages and social media.  As the international disaster response expert Gislio Olfassan often says, how do we…”turn the noise into data, the data into knowledge, and then the knowledge into action.” Gislio and others also suggest that during large-scale catastrophic events that have considerable amounts of information to be processed,  volunteer technology groups might be the key. These articles address both aspects.

1. “Viral Volunteer for Haiti: How Social Media is changing the face of crisis response“. By Jaroslav Valuch This guest article in the Washington Post by our friend Jaroslav outlines how people around the world were able to aid in the response by volunteering virtually.

Of course the scale of the online community’s direct impact cannot compete with the scale of the on-the-ground, international humanitarian community’s impact–nor with the impact of the very first, and most effective, emergency responders (the Haitian neighbors, brothers, mothers who first pulled other Haitians from the rubble). Yet the point isn’t that we should compare experienced and established traditional response systems, backed with huge financial resources, against a massive volunteer initiative that has newly emerged. The point is that we are learning to leverage the potential of social media and mobile communication to help crisis-affected communities–and that we must learn to leverage this even further, based on the lessons learned from Haiti.

2. New Media and Humanitarian Relief: Lessons from Haiti: By Anne Nelson and Mayur Patel. This article describes the 26 page report from the Knight Foundation.

In the weeks after the crisis, Haiti quickly became a real world laboratory for several new applications, such as interactive maps and SMS texting platforms. In the aftermath of the quake, these tools were used for first time on a large scale to create dialogue between citizens and relief workers, help guide search-and-rescue teams and find people in need of critical supplies. The report … recounts the stories of media participants, technologists, humanitarian organizations, Haitian journalists and response teams involved in the relief.”

“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.

3. “Peacebuilding in the Information Age: Sifting Hype from Reality” published by the ICT4Peace Foundation. ICT stands for Information Communications Technology. Their mission is to “explore and champion the use of ICTs for crisis management, humanitarian aid and peacebuilding, and offer insights, strategic guidance and conduct after-action reviews of ICTs designed and deployed for such purposes.”

The 48 page report is actually a collection of articles by scholars and practitioners and tries to offer real solutions and candid insights. If you don’t have time to read all the entries, skip to page 34 and read the contribution from the practitioner Nigel Snoad, “Information Management on the Ground during a Response: 20 Uncomfortable Flashes form the Reality“. His fourth “truth” could be written for any response:

Communications don’t work as promised. Despite having the latest satellite communications gear your Internet connection and email doesn’t work at least half the time. And invariably your HQ colleagues will not really believe that all that expensive satellite equipment doesn’t work as promised. Text messages are often the most reliable thing, assuming the towers are still standing.”

4. The Unprecedented Role of SMS in Disaster Response: Learning from Haiti By: Patrick Meier and Rob Munro; SAIS Review – Volume 30, Number 2, Summer-Fall 2010, pp. 91-103.


The purpose of this paper is to critically analyze the use of text messaging and crisis mapping in disaster response by drawing on Haiti as a case study. We first describe the design and deployment of the system. Next we outline what worked and did not work. We then consider the organizational and institutional implications of this response and articulate some policy recommendations. Finally, we outline the need for an SMS Code of Conduct for Disaster Response and propose one for consideration by the humanitarian community.

5. For a really critical piece about crowdsourcing and crisismapping see Paul Currion’s piece: “If All you have is Hammer: How Useful is Humanitarian Crowdsourcing?” Although this piece runs quite contrary to the rest of the information described here, it’s always interesting to have a counterpoint.  His conclusion:

My critique of crowdsourcing – shared by other people working at the interface of humanitarian response and technology – is not that it is disruptive to business as usual. My critique is that it doesn’t work – not just that it doesn’t work given the constraints of the operational environment (which Ushahidi’s limited impact in past deployments shows to be largely true), but that even if the concept worked perfectly, it still wouldn’t offer sufficient value to warrant investing in.

One response to “Haiti Earthquake: 5 Articles Reflect on Information Technology in Large-Scale Disasters

  1. Pingback: Crisis and Media Event – Research Links « Rally the Cause

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