January 24, 2011, 11:40 AM —
Traditional helpers in disaster relief, such as the U.N. and world governments, provided aid after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti in January 2010, leveled Port-au-Prince, claimed 230,000 lives and caused US$14 billion in damages.
The technology space also played a role in humanitarian efforts as Haitians buried under rubble sent text messages with their locations and open-source mapping communities documented the island. To further research technology's role in disaster relief, the United Nations Foundation and its partners, which include the Vodafone Foundation, commissioned a study from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) on the topic.
"Our job is to design an interface between the U.N. and volunteer technology communities as well as citizens from affected nations," said John Crowley, a research fellow at the HHI and the report's lead author. "We are really at the beginning stages. We need to start this conversation now. What we saw in Haiti will happen again."
While the final study is due out in March, the report's initial findings were released last week to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the earthquake. These early results indicate that mobile technology, the open-source community and Web services each have roles in future humanitarian relief missions.
Relief workers arrived in Haiti without access to data on the country, such as maps, since that information was buried under rubble, Crowley said. Workers had to reconstruct this data while simultaneously dealing with the crisis, he said. They were also given the task of incorporating new data feeds, like text messages, into their work.
Open Street Map, an open-source world map, used old maps and satellite images to construct new maps. The organization, a volunteer group of map enthusiasts, refreshed its maps every minute to address the amount of data being added, Crowley said.