Global/Local Coordination for Haitian Relief and Rescue Efforts
The disaster in Haiti has galvanized all of us. Among the harrowing news reports are all the difficulties in coordinating relief and rescue efforts and getting aid to people in need. Just this morning (Jan. 20), I was reading a press release from Doctors without Borders that its plane containing 12 tons of life-saving medical supplies has been turned away three times from the Port-au-Prince airport since Sunday, despite assurances of its ability to land.
The logistical and coordination issues are truly daunting. I’ve been trying to visualize how all the different aid groups who are on the ground have been able to coordinate their efforts, particularly since there is no electricity, phone systems are down, and the mobile phone systems have been severely compromised.
Yet, you see occasional calls for help coming from the few people who do have working messaging, like the Parisian who received a text message from a relative who was still buried under the rubble and was able to alert emergency workers. How is that being done, I wondered?
Making it Easy for People on the Ground to Submit Incident Reports
It appears that in addition to the formal communication networks (mostly satellite phones) and the information-sharing protocols among emergency aid providers, there is an ecosystem of open source emergency information systems staffed by volunteers around the world that is being actively used. People in need submit requests for help; people on the ground who have updated information about resources or logistics submit reports. All of this is done via SMS, email, Web, and/or Twitter. At first, reports were coming through Internet channels only. “All of the Haitian mobile phone networks have been down, which means our reports are mainly coming through the data channels (internet). Web reports, email and Twitter are the primary ways we’ve been getting them.” (Patrick Meier/Ushahidi). Within a few days, the Ushahidi team was able to procure an SMS short code--4636--and to disseminate it throughout Haiti (over the radio, among rescue workers, etc.) so that, as the mobile phone network is coming back up, people can use the code to SMS their requests and updates.
These reports are processed in real time to validate the information; geocode the location; and map it, translate, and clarify the message and log the requests and/or updates.
Victims, reporters, and rescue workers can submit reports using any of these means:
- In Haiti, SMS to 4636 or internationally to +447624802524
- Send e-mail to [email protected]
- Online at https://haiti.ushahidi.com/reports/submit
- Via Twitter with hash tag #haiti or #haitiquake
The reports are collected and translated in real time by volunteers, including 10,000 Haitian volunteers, mostly from the Haitian diaspora. The messages are coded by type (food, water, medical supplies, people trapped, medical emergency, news about people) as well as geo-coded. Then they are pushed back out via SMS, email, RSS feeds, etc. to organizations and individuals on the ground in Haiti.
I just subscribed to these alerts on Wednesday, Jan 20th, and here are a few of the 35 messages I received in just two hours:
- MARTINE PIERRE IS STILL SENDING MESSAGES ! SHE IS ALIVE UNDER THE RUBBLES AT UNIVERSITE CARAIBES located in DELMAS 29. THere are students that are still alive as well! SEND HELP.
- Innocent Renar - 27 year old is dying like most of the population in Haiti... we have used all our resources! and came to an end. Yesterday we managed to bring him to the French hospital (in Bellevue) and they dumped him back to the Hopital General this morning. He needs to have a dialasys done ASAP or he will die. Internal bleeding and cardiac arrest this morning, his blood is now intoxicated , he hasn't urinated since last Wednesday!!!.. please help him... please he needs to get to that hospital boat arriving tomorrow or be evacuated to the US..Is there anything you can do to save another life?? plz plz plz .. we are desperate...... please contact Lionel @ 3 454 0419 or Sandra 718 810 4628
- Daphney Sylvestre still trapped and alive in car in Carrefour Mahotiere#28 SW
- WFPlogistics so clos 2 airprt, can u help get help? 18°35'36.24"N, 72°16'40.37"W Othopedic clinic,needs narcotics,IV antibiotics,diesel,gas
- Riviere Froide has a collapsed school with more than 100 kids trapped. Is up a river valley that comes out at Carrefour. #haiti
- About 130 trucks (1200 gallons each) of drinking water delivered today in Kenscoff
- Midwife clinic transformed into surgery unit working with Simone Poule neighborhood #loc Taberre at rue glein #6
- Red Cross
- United Nations Foundation
- Plan International
- Charity Water
- Clinton Foundation
- US State Department
- International Medical Corps
- US Coast Guard Task Force
Local aid groups focused on particular needs (water, children, and shelter, etc.) receive updates via email, sms, and/or through daily email or print-out reports given to them by their team leaders.
Among the success stories reported on the Ushahidi Web site are:
- Maison des Anges, an earthquake-damaged orphanage with 80 children between 0 and 2 years requested food and water for the children on January 18th. The children were moved to safety and supplied with food and water. Then a subsequent request came in for more anti-diarrhea medication, more beds and tents
- Several missing people were reported and found thru the system, e.g.:
“We're looking for Marie Edmonde Deville (red T-shirt in photos). She's 31 years-old and lived in Tabarre, Gerald Bataeil Impasse des Mangues #27.”
“We found her! She’s Alive! God Bless you all!!”
- 150 children at the Foyer de Sion orphanage were running out of water. The Latter Day Saints got the message and delivered the water on the same day.
- God's Littlest Angels Orphanage also needed water desperately. It was supplied on the same day by the World Water Relief foundation which also installed a solar-powered water filtration system.
The details about each request that are provided by the volunteers who are coding and translating are incredibly good, since many of these are Haitian expatriates who have local knowledge.
Here’s an example of a chat exchange between volunteers that demonstrates the point:(12:52:55) (Dalila): I need Thomassin Apo please
(12:53:02) (Apo): wait
(12:54:53) (Apo): Kenscoff Route: Lat: 18.495746829274168,
(12:57:25) (Apo): This Area after Petion-Ville and Pelerin 5 is not on
Google Map. We have no streets name
(12:58:05) (Dalila): @Apo I thank you for ur help
(12:58:24) (Apo): you are welcome
(12:58:53) (Apo): I know this place like my pocket
(12:59:08) (Dalila): :)
(12:59:14) (Dalila): thank God u was here
Some of the results achieved during the past week (excerpted from the Ushahidi blog):1) People being able to get through to relatives overseas and let them know they are ok for the first time:
“peter mwen pale avek minouche yo bien 1 317xxxxxxx”2) Reports of emergencies are going straight back to the organizations on the ground, translated and with geo coordinates where possible – people in Haiti were responding to this one on Jan 19th within 10 minutes of receiving it:
(Peter, I am talking with Minouche. All are well. 1 317xxxxxx)
“Men se Jean Waniï¿½re m,ap travay lan Unicï¿½f mwen abite kafoufï¿½y ri bredi nimero 11 alenteryï¿½ mwe gen 2 moun ki anba kay la toujou ?”3) From people in Haiti volunteering to help (they have been put in touch with local aid efforts)
(My name is Jean Wani my brother is working in Unicef and I live in Carfour 11 Alentyerye I have 2 people that is still alive under the building still ! Send Help!)
“Please, call or write us if you need more information or if you need our help like being translators, food distributors or any services else from us.”
“le 3xxx.xxxx.xx nou se yon group jï¿½n ki rete zon nan nou pre pou nou bay sï¿½vis men nou pa gen nan men nou”4) People sharing local information about aid centers:
(3xxx.xxx.x.xx We are a group of young people who live in the area and we are ready to help, but we have nothing)
“Rue Casseus no 9 gen yon sant kap bay swen ak moun ki blese e moun ki brile”5) From across the world volunteers are helping to translate the messages (including all the ones above – mostly the Haitian diaspora):
(Street Casseus no 9, there is a center that helps people that are wounded or burnt)
“I am holding up better nowadays because I am able to talk to most of my relatives, and also because I feel like I’m really helping.”
“No matter what it is so much better than sitting here feeling helpless.”
Initiatives to Empower & Inform Local Citizens
There are many volunteer and open source organizations that have rallied to assist Haitians. The CrisisCommons Wiki provides a good overview of many of these projects.
Among them are:
- Haiti Ushahidi.com: SMS shortcode 4636 to report on the ground information (see more background, below)
- Haiti Sahana Foundation: Situation map, List of all responding agencies and their activities, disaster victim identification (more background, below)
- InSTEDD/Thomson/Reuters: InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Disease and Disasters) is a foundation created by Reuters and now continued under Thomson/Reuters which has taken the tools Reuters uses to cover breaking news and turn them into a rapidly deployable Emergency Information System (EIS). InSTEDD immediately deployed key people to Haiti via the Dominican Republic in order to offer EIS to the Haitian people. The InSTEDD staff have become the on-the-ground coordinators for most of these efforts to gather information from people on the ground and disseminate it to those who can take action.
- Crisis Camps: Developers and non-technical volunteers gathered on January 16/17th to work on these and other related projects for IT, information, and communication support in Washington, DC; Los Angeles; Silicon Valley; Brooklyn, NY; London; and Wellington, New Zealand. Additional Crisis Camps are planned for this coming weekend in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA. For more info, search #CCHaiti on twitter.
- Haiti Volunteer.org is a Drupal site that has been set up so that people with skills volunteering can connect with organizations that need their skills.
- PersonFinder: A Google app for matching missing people and information about people based on the People Finder Interchange Format (PFIF)
- GeoChat: Promulgated by InSTEDD. It’s a disaster-ready group communications tool. Use SMS messaging to coordinate with team members on the surface of a map.
- Tweak the Tweet: An initiative that sprang out of the University of Colorado at Boulder's Empowering the Public with Crisis Information program. The goal is to promote Tweet-friendly hashtag-based syntax to help direct Twitter communications for more efficient data extraction for those communicating about the Haiti earthquake disaster. Use only requires modifications of Tweet messages to make information pieces that refer to #location, #status, #needs, #damage, and several other elements of emergency communications more machine parsable.
What I find fascinating about these tools and the organizations of volunteers that surround them is that many of them have evolved out of natural disasters in other parts of the world. For example, Ushahidi was developed in response to post election violence in Kenya. Sahana was developed in response to the Tsunami in Sri Lanka.
Ushahidi: Kenyan Citizen Journalism Led to Mobilization of Grass Roots Communications Efforts in Haiti
Ushahidi, which means ‘testimony’ in Swahili, was a simple Web site mashup of user-generated reports (primarily from text messages sent via mobile phones) and Google Maps. It was created to gather citizen-generated crisis information during the post-election violence in Kenya. The Web site was used to map incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout the country based on reports submitted via the Web and mobile phone. This initial deployment of Ushahidi had 45,000 users in Kenya. The Kenyan experience led the founding team, which includes Ory Okolloh, Erik Hersman, David Kobia, and Juliana Rotich, to realize that there was a need for a robust platform for mapping and tracking incidents and reports that come in via short text messages that could be used by others around the world. They received grant funding to develop the open source technology platform and grew a strong team of volunteer developers in Africa, Europe, and the U.S. The re-platformed version of Ushahidi has been used by over a dozen organizations in 2008 and 2009, including by Al Jazeera during the War on Gaza, Vote Report India (to monitor local elections), and Pak Voices (to map incidents of violence in Pakistan).
When the earthquake struck on January 12th, Patrick Meier, one of the Ushahidi team, immediately called for a Haitian version to be developed and deployed. Thanks to programmers in Nairobi and volunteers from the International Network of Crisis Mappers, the customized site for the Haiti earthquake rescue efforts was deployed on January 13th. But, beyond the tool, what’s most impressive is the people power and cooperation that Ushahidi has mobilized. “The Fletcher School at Tufts University put together a group that crowdsourced and filtered the incoming reports, a HUGELY helpful and tedious process.” This became the first “situation room.” Others sprang up in DC and Nairobi. They mobilized Haitian volunteers and engaged with the Crisis Camps that were mobilizing developers and volunteers around the world.
Here’s the account of how they managed to get the 4636 SMS code up and running quickly so that it could be used as soon as the mobile networks came back up. From the Ushahidi blog: The Fletcher School/Tufts Situation Room in MA
“Shortly after we deployed https://haiti.ushahidi.com in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, it became clear we needed a local SMS short code to make mobile reporting more viable. Josh Nesbit, Co-Founder of FrontlineSMS:Medic, took the lead by looking for a contact on the ground in Haiti. Using Twitter, Josh found Jean-Marc Castera who was heading to the DigiCel command center.
Josh says that, “skyping with Jean-Marc on the ground, and letting the Ushahidi team in Kenya and the US know I had someone from DigiCel’s command center on the line was an awesome moment.” Working in partnership with the U.S. Department of State (Big thanks to @kateatstate), Ushahidi eventually secured the short code 4636 from DigiCel.Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes, Brian Herbert worked with Josh, Luke Beckman from InSTEDD, Paul Goodman from DAI, and Rob Munro to structure content. They created an online database at https://4636.ushahidi.com where incoming raw SMS reports can be tagged and mapped. Local organizations can subscribe to the SMS feed by contacting Brian Herbert.
On the ground in Haiti, Nicolas di Tada and Eric Rasmussen, CEO of InSTEDD also provided crucial support. Nicolas did the initial testing of the shortcode and is currently handling local outreach. InSTEDD’s EIS project and Reuters are using the short code to register mobile numbers from people on the ground for vital information blasts.”
Then, once the 4636 code was up and running, and the word began getting out, the messages started pouring in. The trick was to mobilize volunteers to process and translate the messages. Here’s an excerpt from another post on the Ushahidi blog with a message from Patrick Meier, director of crisis mapping and partnerships for Ushahidi, describing part of the action:
“This has probably been the most incredible day thus far thanks to Brian, David, Josh & co: the 4636 SMS feature is up and running. Team, this is completely unprecedented in the history of humanitarian response. We’re getting 100’s of text messages into Ushahidi, translated into English thanks to Brian’s 10,000 Haitian volunteers. We can then map this, or ask for more information (with pre-arranged text in English or Creole, eg, please send more location info). This SMS from Ushahidi then goes back to the original sender of the original SMS, who can then reply with the more precise location info (say in Creole). This goes back to the 10,000 Haitian translators who translate into English and then this goes back to us at Ushahidi in the appropriate SMS thread for us to map.”
“Also an amazing live Skype chat between Anna here in the Sit Room and Eric Rasmussen (InSTEDD and former Chief Medical Officer of the US Navy). Eric skyping from tarmac of PoP airport asking for GPS coordinates of the most obscure addresses, sites, locations and Anna providing these in record time. She has wowed the entire team in PaP including military, UN, etc. Incredible to witness all this real time networking and collaboration. Mark my words, the response to Haiti is a turning point in the history of disaster response. All of this is completely unprecedented.”Each report is coded based on what type of incident it is. Here, on January 21st is yet another "Person Trapped" report.
Sahana- Bringing the Learnings from the SriLankan Tsunami to Haiti
Sahana is being used to take the inputs from Ushahidi and funnel them to the most appropriate aid agencies. Sahana is an open source disaster management system that was originally developed in response to the December 2004 Sri Lankan Tsunami. “The Sahana project was initiated by volunteers in the Sri Lankan FOSS development community to help their fellow countrymen and countrywomen affected during the 2004 Asian Tsunami in December 2004. The system was officially used by the Government of Sri Lanka and the system was released as Free and Open Source software. Subsequently a re-write (phase II) as a generic disaster management tools was incubated with the sponsorship of SIDA, IBM and NSF (US) and it has be used by the Governments and NGOs in Philippines, Pakistan, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.”
Sahana has been used in the following disasters:
- Tsunami - Sri Lanka 2005 - Officially deployed in the CNO for the Government of Sri Lanka
- AsianQuake - Pakistan 2005 - Officially deployed within with NADRA for the Government of Pakistan
- Southern Leyte Mudslide Disaster - Philippines 2006 - Officially deployed with the NDCC and ODC for the Government of Philippines
- Sarvodaya - Sri Lanka 2006 - Deployed for Sri Lanka's largest NGO
- Terre des Hommes - Sri Lanka 2006 - Deployed with new Child Protection Module
- Yogjarkata Earthquake - Indonesia 2006 - Deployed by ACS, urRemote and Indonesian whitewater association and Indonesian Rescue Source
- New York City - 2007-08 – Pre-deployed in support of the City of New York’s Coastal Storm Plan
- Peru Ica Earthquake - 2007 - Deployed for the Government of Peru
- Chendu - Shizuan Province Earthquake 2008 - Deployed by Chendgu Police
Sahana is used to keep a master database of all relief organizations, offices and contacts and to communicate with them by ensuring that the right organizations receive the right incident reports.
The Sahana modules currently being used in Haiti include:
- Organization Registry - Coordinating and balancing the distribution of relief organizations in the affected areas and connecting relief groups allowing them to operate as one
- Situation Awareness - Providing a GIS overview of the situation at hand for the benefit of the decision makers
In addition to the insurmountable problems on the ground and the difficulties in getting assistance to the places where it’s most needed, the biggest challenge that these teams of Internet-enabled volunteer organizations face is the difficulty in closing the loop. Many of the reported incidents remain “open” – not because they are, but because the relief workers in the field are much too busy rushing from one situation to the next to provide a status update on a resolved issue. From the Ushahidi blog:
“Getting these organizations to let us know when they’ve taken action on a need is difficult since they’re still in full emergency response mode and don’t have much time to fill out completion surveys. In any case, we are trying to divide up this list of organizations between us and contact the liaison for each one twice a day for updates. This will soon become the Ushahidi Non-Tech team’s primary efforts.”
The Dawning of a New Era in Disaster Relief and Coordination
What’s different about this particular flurry of volunteerism and use of open source tools to help in a galvanizing disaster? To my mind, it’s the focus on empowering the citizens of Haiti, as well as the relief and rescue organizations, to communicate their needs and to report updates. The goal has been to make it as easy as possible for people in need to ask for specific assistance and to put an alternative coordination infrastructure in place where no existing infrastructure exists. Locating each incident report precisely on a map has been critical to its success. Tagging each type of request so they can be quickly routed to the appropriate aid agencies has been important. Mobilizing native speakers and local subject matter experts has been critical to the success of this project.
As Patrick Meier of Ushahidi said in his message on the Ushahidi blog, this level of engagement, this quickly is pretty amazing. “Honestly, the word that comes to mind to describe this is “absurd”, in the best possible, most positive sense of the word. This, Team, is what I am fond of calling an iRevolution.”