Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Haiti: the first Digital Disaster

Its been over four months now since the killer quake destroyed much of Haiti's capital city, killing an (under)estimated 250'000 people in the process, decapitating government institutions and wrecking an economy that was already near rock bottom. Haiti's humanitarian impact has resonated around the world resulting in an outpouring of support and a near-unprecedented mobilization of aid agencies to a single country. One facet of the Haiti disaster response has been the pervasive and effective use of SMS technologies combined with new social media tools. Indeed, even Obama was tweeting - surely a first for an American president. Here are some reflections for you to ponder on a topic that is evolving so fast, with so much untapped potential that its manifestation and role in future disaster scenarios will surely surprise us all.

Texts and Tweets

“Hotel Montana at Rue Franck Cardozo in Petionville collapsed. 200 feared trapped.”

“We are in the street Saint Martin below Bel Air near the hotel. We are dying of hunger. Please bring us aid.”

These desperate pleas were sent by text message in the first few days after the earthquake struck Port-au-Prince. They were sent through the Emergency Information Service, a disaster communications project established by the Thompson Reuters Foundation, as a way to get information quickly to and from survivors of natural disasters. (Photo: a man rents mobile phone chargers by the hour in downtown Port-au-Prince . (REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/courtesy

It’s not your traditional cry for help. But in Haiti, with traditional media and phone systems destroyed, text messages and Twitter were often the only way desperate, hungry or hurting people could signal their distress.

The Emergency Information Service was then able to locate the callers by GPS, plot their location on maps, and referred the call to volunteers on the ground. Concrete examples include directing injured Haitians via text message to one of the few city hospitals with room to treat more patients.

The system also helped search-and-rescue teams find people trapped in the rubble. Red Cross teams on the ground received dozens of messages from people trapped in the rubble. This information was relayed promptly to evacuation teams supported by Haitian Red Cross first aid volunteers.

In addition, the Haitian Red Cross National Society and the IFRC teamed up with Voila mobile phone company to text more than 1.2 million subscribers a day with messages about vaccinations, shelter, sanitation, public health information and other vital data. The push of a button achieved what would normally take an army of volunteers days.

From ‘victims’ to first responders
The idea of using cell phone technology in disaster management is not new. After the 2004 Tsunami, it became clear that modern wireless communication could play critical role in systems for both early warning as well as crisis management.

Digital communications are only a small part of a broader strategy to give greater voice to those most affected by natural disasters. The approach recognizes that people affected by disasters are not 'victims' but a significant force of first responders who need to be empowered and engaged as part of the overall aid effort. After all, it is their recovery, their future, their lives and livelihoods at stake.

How might new technologies change disaster response?

The prevalence of new approaches that utilize, among others, SMS and Twitter; crisis mapping and crowd sourcing, raises a number of important questions for future disaster response and provides us with an important dilemma.

In an evolving emergency (such as during the first days of Haiti) when data is scarce but it is clear that the needs are both urgent and massive how can aid agencies organize themselves to respond to individual requests for help? Should aid agencies even contemplate to organizing themselves to respond to individual calls for help? In Haiti, because of the widespread devastation, the Red Cross was faced with a situation where we did not even have water and sanitation or shelter for ourselves, no telecommunications and no electricity in the first days. Because of its self-sustaining Emergency Response Units however it could still manage to set up surgical field hospitals, mass water distributions and basic health care clinics.

That is, we promptly tackled the ‘known knowns’ based on our experiences from decades of disaster response. This experience informs the type of relief provided for known urgent needs that surface in the wake of large-scale disasters. Relief distributions of essential household items such as shelter materials, hygiene kits and kitchen sets quickly followed the emergency medical and water aid, as did reuniting separated families. That is how humanitarian organizations are currently organized.

To effectively respond to tens of thousands of individual cries for help however is currently ‘impossible’ today. There are two immediate challenges to overcome. Firstly, and most importantly perhaps, is to verify the needs. To confirm that received information from individuals relates to actual needs takes resources and takes time; and time is the single most important and scarce resource in the early days of emergency response. (Photo: In the chaos of the camp at Leogane’s footbaal stadium, two hours drive south of Port-au-Prince, this man has set up a mobile phone recharging business.)

Second challenge is the diverse range of needs – in Haiti the Red Cross received urgent requests for help such as: food, blankets, blood, evacuations, tracing missing children, contacting relatives abroad, dialysis treatment, psychological support, money, tents, water, baby food, diapers, protection from looters, mobile phone chargers, clothes, prescription and off the shelf medicines, fuel for vehicles and generators, spare parts, flash lights etc. etc. etc. It takes enormous time to sift through this information, verify it and respond to it – even if it were possible it is arguably much less efficient and effective than the current emergency response mechanisms to the known urgent and life-saving medical, water and shelter needs.

Mapping a crisis has powerful potential

However, this virtual hosepipe of customized information about individual needs cannot be ignored and does have value. It is currently possible to ‘crisis map’ this crowd sourced data and categorize it into useful trending data that can then be shared with and responded to by organizations who specialize in the specific needs requested such as shelter, child protection or blood supply. But we are not there yet and it would require nothing less than a full reorganization of how emergency response is conceived and conducted today.

One challenge for instance, relates to the ‘risks’ potentially associated with crowd sourcing which must first be mitigated and dealt with. Without getting too detailed here there is real potential for vested interests to manipulate data (particularly in a politically-charged context) by mass blasting misinformation via text or twitter to attract aid into their neighbourhoods or worse, to wrongly signal widespread sexual violence with the intention of sparking off reactionary but unwarranted violence by the offended ethnic group. Unproven allegations of this have been made in DRC for instance where the ground-breaking crowd sourcing mapping tool Ushahidi is widely used.

But hasn’t information always been the first casualty of conflict? An indication of desperation. Such known risks of information abuse, with potentially lethal outcomes, should not detract from the massive good and value that a tool such as Ushahidi can bring. Indeed, people learn quickly – in Chile during the earthquake that struck almost 3 months ago, citizens quickly developed their own version of a crowd-sourced crisis map using freely available Google mapping softwardGoogle themselves quickly launched an online person finder application which has been widely used (almost 80’000 people registered to date) to excellent effect (note: this is of course a ‘traditional’ area of the Red Cross – tracing – being increasingly ‘challenged’ by media companies such as CNN and Google).

Nothing New, not really

And then of course there’s Twitter – perhaps the most powerful crowd sourcing tool out there; at least the one whose huge potential is simultaneously being tapped and explored. Information is so easily transmitted via SMS or online that it can transmit and filter millions of data messages per second. In Chile in particular the speed and efficiency of, for example, search and rescue information channelled through Twitter was hugely impressive.

Chile Twitter lists #terremotochile and #fuerzachile (labeled after President Bachelet's message of strength to the Chilean population) served as central repositories, not only of information but of connections. There have also been two main search and rescue lists distributed via Twitter and later on Facebook, blogs, media and beyond Ayudemos a Chile (Helping Chile) and Terremoto Chile (Chile Earthquake)

Why is Twitter so popular – in my opinion because it is nothing new: Spread the word, let others know - unite in difficult times. And that’s the bottom line. New media, new online tools must be used and adapted to increase humanitarian impact and relevance during times of disaster (and also during times of quiet, by improving early warning systems or enhancing accountability to people affected by disasters for instance).

Twitter, Facebook, Skype and Youtube, to name a few, have also greatly improved and changed the way aid organizations are communicating to the media, donors and the general public. These social media tools enable a two-way conversation. The days have passed when organizations can rely on controlling their message and mass broadcasting it in a uni-directional fashion via traditional print and broadcast channels.

Today its about engaging with your audience; about trying to communicate your message to guide, encourage, engage and influence your stakeholders and, importantly, enlist them as active supporters. Social media in an instant breaks down the staid, clinical, impermeable boundaries that institutions have a tendency to create. Instead, it strips away the divisions and demonstrates clearly that your organization, your national Red Cross society, is about real people; real people who can be easily connected with and maybe even supported in terms of promoting your humanitarian message, fundraising or advocating in the interests of the most vulnerable. This evolving ‘humanization’ of organizational culture and increasing engagement of ordinary citizens into political and business thinking, which is being unwittingly and undeniably achieved by online media, may be one of the reasons why it’s not so ridiculous after all that the Internet has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize!



  1. Please include a mention of OpenStreetMap's excellent work in mapping Haiti after the disaster to support rescue efforts.

  2. Dear Anonymous -- indeed there were many actors and agencies who did (and are still doing) great work including Internews and Mercy Corps. The piece above does not claim to be exhaustive, more a personal reflection based on my experiences there in the first weeks and subsequently from afar here in Geneva. Hence the RedCross-centricity! Am not aware of open street maps but will certainly investigate. Thanks for the comment, Paul.

  3. Excellent piece Paul. Very well written.

  4. Thanks so much for your post! As a virtual volunteer for Humanity Road, Inc., I have seen first-hand how Twitter helps to save lives. Please check out our website at or on Facebook at

  5. Hi Toni and Christine thx for the positive feedback. Am following you both on Twitter as well as Humanity Road. Am interested to know what a 'virtual' volunteer's work entails (I guess your hometown based?) - Will take some time to learn more about Humanity Road. Very interested to hear about your use of Twitter also, and other social media tools (advantages / disadvantages in disaster response and recovery) Thx again. P.