Haitian crisis highlights need to find new ways of gathering data … social networking to the rescue

Takeaway: The crisis in Haiti proves that necessity is the mother of innovation as volunteers turn to new platforms to aggregate data from cell phones and social networks in order to decide where to focus their efforts.

As the dust from this tragedy settles, will these new methods for composing tweets into tunes find other applications?

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Excerpt from Washington Post, “Crisis mapping brings online tool to Haitian disaster relief effort” by Monica Hesse, January 16, 2010.

The site Ushahidi.com allows users to submit eyewitness accounts or other relevant information for disaster zones via e-mail, text or Twitter — and then visualize the frequency of these events on a map. By Friday, Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, had received nearly 33,000 unique visitors, and several hundred personal reports in Haiti that mainstream news organizations might not hear about.

Taken individually, these bits of data might not be terribly useful. The goal is that by aggregating the incidents in a visual format, people and organizations using the site will be able to see patterns of destruction, to determine where services should be concentrated. A red dot on the map, for example, signifies that looting is happening near a town called Pétionville; another shows that Hotel Villa Creole has become a site of medical triage.

The practice is known as crisis mapping, a newer field of disaster analysis using geography-based data sets, employed by organizations like Ushahidi and Arlington-based GeoCommons. Although individuals have used Twitter and Facebook to share anecdotes for a few years — notably, during 2009’s contested Iranian elections — crisis mapping brings many data points together, making meaning out of randomness and spreading information about areas lacking well-developed records. “We’re providing a repository for all kinds of organizations,” says Ushahidi’s director of strategic operations and founded the International Network of Crisis Mappers.

Ushahidi was originally founded in 2008 to map reports of violence in post-election Kenya. A Kenyan blogger had been trying to keep track of these incidents, “but got swamped by how much information was coming in and wanted to have a larger context of what was happening.” She appealed to the blogosphere for help, and soon had a site that allowed the entire Kenyan population to catalogue the injustices and atrocities they were witnessing — a real-time encyclopedia of unrest. Since then, the Ushahidi platform has been employed in many smaller projects, from monitoring elections in India to tracking medicine in various African countries.

In Haiti, it’s too early to tell what impact Ushahidi might have on relief efforts.

Some of the rescue workers for whom Ushahidi was intended are currently too besieged by the chaos of the situation to attempt incorporating it into their work: “Our colleagues are not feeding information into crowd-sourcing platforms for now,” writes one crisis responder. “I don’t think they have the time.”

Crisis mappers hope that their analytics will gain greater use in coming days, as rescue workers attempt to navigate the changed landscape.

“Being one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti doesn’t have the infrastructure that a more developed country would have,” such as extensive Global Positioning System equipment that would aid in mapping the terrain, says chief technology officer of GeoCommons, which has also been producing Haiti-related maps. “Now you have all of these people needing to know how to get from here to there. You need to know where the triage centers are, and the food and water. An old map would be irrelevant with road closings.”

The crowd-sourcing represents the future of crisis response. “We’re going to need to collaborate, we’re going to need to share data,” a Ushahidi contributor said. “The best way to provide humanitarian response is to be able to provide platforms and tools that allow people to share on-the-ground information quickly.”

Edit by BHC

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