Reflecting on Haiti, Disasters, and Technology

Two years ago, in the aftermath of the January, 2010 earthquake, hackers and social activists led a charge and saved lives in Haiti from across the sea. Ushahidi remindes us of the scale of this by reposting a blog from the process. Re-reading this through me into a reflective state on how far ICT4D has come in the past few years, and how much more value it brings to the table.

The initial, amazing outpouring of support for earthquake victims in Haiti was heartwarming. The worldwide aid response, not without some hiccups and valid criticism, went well.

The one thread through the global response to the earthquake has been the supporting role that technology has played. At a basic level, SMS fundraising will no longer be seen as a pipe-dream. With deeper impact, however, was the direct role that technology played. We saw the ability of hackers with good hearts around the world to lend a helping hand through infrastructural projects like Ushahidi and Open Street Map as well as engagement tools like The Extaordinaries' iPhone app. Inveneo's ICT_Works blog goes into great detail on the The Rise of the Voluntary Humanitarian Technologist in Disaster Response:

2010 redefined the role of volunteers during humanitarian emergencies and disaster risk management. Traditionally, civil society organizations ranging in size from small community organizations to the international Federation of Red Cross mobilized volunteers to perform a wide range of actions, in order to: manage logistics, provide medical care, and perform community based risk assessments in addition to other forms of direct action.

These platforms, built by social entrepreneurs and volunteers worldwide, are windows in to a confluence of increasingly open data in international development projects, improved data exchange standards and tools, and technology-inclined social entrepreneurs and ICT4D leaders.

Ushahidi is a great tool allowing people to report all kinds of events through whatever means they have available (mobile phones, email, and full-on web access). It has been used to monitor elections, report wildlife preservation alerts, and in a smorgasboard of other projects, as well as multiple product lines that have evolved in the two years since.

Open Street Map is like a crowdsourced Google Maps; letting it go where the roads may not officially exist or may change rapidly. The OSM Haiti project tracks road closures, impassable areas, and impromptu medical and housing services, relying on reports from people on the ground to constantly update the data. In NGO-speak, it's community mapping on the biggest dose of coffee and B vitamins you can imagine.

The Extraordinaries let's you turn those idle moments when you're flipping back and forth between screens on your iPhone into opportunities to do good in bite-sized chunks, by helping tag photos, tweak translations and do all of those things that otherwise sit undone.

And if these systems aren't inspiring enough, the CrisisCamps which ignited worldwide to focus attention and skills on solving outstanding problems are simply mindblowing.

After decades of promise, ICT4D is beginning to provide value instead of being a rather expensive money pit with questionable outcomes. Largely this is due to the rapid diffusion of cell phones, which provide affordable access to information and an ability to not only receive information, but also to contribute it through SMS interactions and systems like FrontlineSMS. Thanks are also due, though, to the people linking technology to social needs using innovative business models as well as technology - Ushahidi is a non-profit technology development firm, and Inveneo takes a hybrid social business model with their broadband program in Haiti.

While I often grouse about the total cost of ownership of technology, and end up being a critic more than a cheerleader for most implementation projects, I feel we are finally approaching a turning point, where the costs will be decreasing and the benefits exponentially increasing.