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 change.org 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.