How Social Media Changed Disaster Response in Haiti: Search and Rescue Operations

In my February 26 post titled “How the Rise of Social Media Changed Disaster Response in Haiti,” I identified five ways in which social media aided or altered the disaster relief effort in Haiti. I concluded that it appears social media have fundamentally changed disaster relief forever, though of course they are no sort of cure-all. Te-Ping Chen at agrees with this argument, in her March 1 post discussing ways in which social media efforts unveiled in Haiti were reused in the Chile relief effort. Since my February 26 post I have condensed my list of five ways in which social media changed disaster relief in Haiti into four. In posts over the next four days I will explain these four ideas.

Enhancing technical search and rescue operations

Social media dramatically improved Haitians’ and outsiders’ abilities to locate missing persons and repair critical infrastructure. Moments after the earthquake struck, social media served as a first responder. Many survivors who were unable to use phone lines to alert their status to friends and family—due to massive infrastructure breakdowns—used social media to do so, primarily through Facebook and Twitter. Many of these individuals were able to contact friends and family long before any relief or news teams could arrive.

As the search for survivors progressed, in some cases individuals who could not access phone lines were able to alert search teams as to their whereabouts, again via Facebook and Twitter. Individuals with Internet access also used social media to describe conditions of local structures and to communicate locations of potential survivors to search teams.

Open-source mapping software also played a pivotal role in these efforts. A variety of organizations created mapping programs to track developing relief initiatives, identifying locations of medical centers, relief shelters, and emergency threats. Individuals with Internet access can log on and update local data; even if an individual only has a small amount of information to share, the collaborative maps are expansive, allowing those in need to more effectively locate relief provisions. These maps are further able to identify the areas most badly damaged by the earthquake, and enable relief teams to efficiently navigate the streets.

Before the Haiti crisis, this technology had never been so comprehensively integrated into search and rescue disaster relief efforts. In Haiti, these efforts experienced measured success: by combining multiple technologies, and by allowing large numbers of individuals to provide live information, social media enabled a diverse group of survivors and rescuers to coordinate complex relief initiatives.

Finally, social media enhanced governmental initiatives in assisting ongoing relief and rebuilding efforts in Haiti. The Department of Homeland Security joined the social media disaster relief movement by creating the Haiti Social Media Disaster Monitoring Initiative. The initiative was designed to track up to 60 social media websites in order to learn about conditions in Haiti and send alerts to US Government agencies in the country. In one example, a Homeland Security employee discovered a message on Twitter giving the location and coordinates of a person trapped under a building. The Department of Homeland Security forwarded the information to the State Department, which sent a rescue team to the site. In this way, social media has enabled foreign governments to involve themselves more closely with efforts to connect relief teams with Haitian earthquake victims in need.

3 thoughts on “How Social Media Changed Disaster Response in Haiti: Search and Rescue Operations

  1. steve says:

    It’s the new age really. Internet connectivity is one of the things that stays in one piece even when everything else fall down.

    Arriba the internet

  2. Imogen Wall says:

    Interesting. But as someone who is in the process of carrying out detailed research into ccommunications and the Haiti response, I cannot stress enough that the primary  significance of SMS and phone tools was to allow Haitians to connect with each other.  The international urban search and rescue teams in Haiti rescued between them 136 individuals, of whom maybe one or two can be attributed to information provided to USAR teams via social media (evaluations of Mission 4636 have failed to find a single concete case study). The problem with USAR in Haiti was never lack of information about where people were trapped, it was logistics: everyone in Port au Prince has stories of hearing voices from buildings that no one could get to that went on for days. Countless hundreds of Haitians, meanwhile, alerted and were able to help each other via SMS and phonecalls, including from beneath the rubble. This is not an academic point – it has real operational implications. Both of the two mobile phone companies in Haiti were refused permission to land planes  carrying the equipment and engineers to restore their networks – on the grounds that this was not humanitarian assistance. This delayed those crucial repairs. For Haitians in Port au Prince, one of the most critical issues was that this degradation of the network mean SMS were delayed for several hours. They also faced serious problems in being able to recharge their phones. To make a real difference in future responses, both these issues need to be addressed: restoring phone networks needs to be seen as a humanitarian priority, and aid systems need to consider how they can help people recharge phones (this can also become an income generating activity). Although it's a great system, the experience of Haiti suggests that activities such as these will do far more to help people than refinement of Ushahidi.

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