How Social Media Changed Disaster Response in Haiti: Expanding Foreign Volunteerism Opportunities

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, though of course they are no sort of cure-all. Since my February 26 post I have condensed my list of five ways in which social media changed disaster relief in Haiti into four. This post is part two in a four-part series explaining these ideas.

Expanding foreign volunteerism opportunities

Social media technology drastically increased the global public’s ability to contribute via micro-vounteerism. Through three main activities, individuals were able to contribute volunteer work from anywhere in the world to help provide relief to survivors in Haiti. The Haiti earthquake relief effort marks the single greatest micro-volunteerism effort in human history; social media made this effort possible by providing new avenues of communication and collaboration.

First, foreign volunteers contributed by developing computer programs and technology applications to assist the relief effort. Many of these programs helped enable the massive social media relief effort that proceeded. Ushahidi, a program originally built to track election violence in Kenya, created, a site that tracks people, emergency incidents, and search and rescue operations.

The maps created for this initiative rely on open-source mapping software that depends on volunteers to provide geographical information. Prior to the earthquake, the map of Haiti contained only major roads.A day after the quake, Port-au-Prince had been almost completely mapped by groups of volunteers, a task that normally would have required a great deal of time and money. These maps enabled people on the ground to more effectively provide relief when and where it was needed.

Second, foreign volunteers contributed to the Haiti relief effort by participating in people locating projects. One example, the Haiti Earthquake Support Center project, created by The Extraordinaries—a micro-work volunteer website—allowed volunteers to log online to match photos of missing persons in Haiti to pictures taken at relief centers. By doing this, friends and families of the missing individuals would be alerted that the missing were safe. Individuals would post photos of missing relatives and friends, and others would post photos taken at relief centers.

Volunteers had two primary tasks: to sort and tag these thousands of photos by age, gender, and other attributes in order to develop a missing person database, and to sift through this database in an attempt to match missing persons with people photographed in relief centers. Each time a match was confirmed, the survivor’s friends and family would be alerted: a photo of the survivor had been taken at a relief center; thus the survivor had made it out of the destruction and was out of immediate danger. The organization also created an iPhone application, which allowed volunteers to work remotely. Through these implementations, social media enabled volunteers to contribute to the relief effort from anywhere in the world.

Third, foreign volunteers assisted the Haiti relief effort by participating in crisis camps, groups that would do both of the aforementioned activities, and also scour Twitter and other social media sites for information from victims. They would respond to requests from relief teams on the ground in Haiti, looking up coordinates for buildings, finding directions, and answering other needs from people on the ground with limited technological access.

These crisis camps set up command centers in major cities including Washington, Los Angeles, London, and Bogota, pooling the efforts of groups of volunteers to provide assistance to survivors and relief teams in Haiti. Google also created a crisis response center to provide similar support services. Along with missing person finders and map- and program makers, these crisis relief centers were a significant contribution to the Haiti relief effort as an example of micro-volunteerism through the usage of social media technology.

Come back tomorrow and Saturday for the remaining two parts in this series.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: