Centralizing a People Finder for Haiti, Plus an SMS 911

    by Christopher Csikszentmihályi
    January 17, 2010

    The information activist community has been rushing to respond to the Haitian earthquake. What I find remarkable is the capacity that has been built up in the last few years; from software standards, like the pfif standard generated after Katrina, to early systems like the Ushahidi engine designed during the Kenyan election violence, to larger organizations and resources like the Crisis Commons wiki and the Crisis Camps.

    First on the scene were a variety of technologists who were addressing the problem of people finding — how to bring separated people back together, both for peace of mind and for social capital. Several sites started offering this service, like the American Red Cross FamilyLinks and the custom-made Haitianquake.com.

    By Friday, Google stepped in with its offering, and because of their capacity most everyone agreed to standardize around it, even though it lacked some of the functionality of other systems, and had only a few dozen people in its database (compared to Haitianquake’s 6000). Similar utilities are still springing up — the Miami Herald and the New York Times came out with their own — but developers are lobbying these and other organizations to contain the spread. Silos will only make it more difficult for people to find each other. The tool to use is http://haiticrisis.appspot.com/. Blog it, yo.


    Also just launched by Ushahidi, is an effort to create a sort of 911 for Haiti, based on SMS messages. The SMS shortcode 4636 is now live, and messages are being queued. A web interface then allows Creole speaking “dispatchers” — from anywhere on the Internet — to take the SMS messages off the queue to organize and tag them.

    The SEIU, with tens of thousands of Haitian American members, is setting up command centers in four North American cities and its members will be actively dispatching, but any Creole speaking web user can volunteer. Once the messages are coded, they will generate feed outputs that can be used by various organizations (including journalists, humanitarian relief workers, etc.). Messages are just starting to come in: no doubt the biggest problem starting Sunday will be what to do with all the data.

    There is now talk of doing a similar “mechanical turk” style translation interface as well, allowing Haitian Americans to act as real-time mediators between aid workers and citizens. Voice systems are requisite in a country with 50% illiteracy, but also significantly harder to create and more computationally demanding.


    A list of some of the software initiatives:


    And volunteers:


    And organizations:


    Tagged: #haiti crisiscamp disaster response earthquake people finder SMS

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