Category Archives: Disaster Relief

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.

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.

How the Rise of Social Media Transformed Disaster Response in Haiti

When the earthquake struck Haiti this January, a number of administrations were quick to respond: government organizations, NGOs, IGOs, and foreign militaries. They had a difficult time coordinating efforts, but nonetheless different organizations found ways to contribute, the US Military leading the way in opening sea lanes and airports among other efforts. The initial relief effort in Haiti was a product of more global activism and funding than any other disaster relief initiative in human history.

And, for some reason, it wasn’t surprising. To me anyway. Thinking back to other recent natural catastrophes, including the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, and even Katrina, none of them seemed so fully covered by the news, and more importantly none seemed to galvanize support so quickly as this one. Surely the US would have been quicker to mobilize a relief effort to its own citizens in New Orleans than to mobilize a relief effort to a foreign country—be it so close in proximity.

It must have been something else which expedited the relief effort. Maybe in the case of the US it was partially a sense that it had to make up for its abysmal response to Katrina five years ago. More significantly, I think, it was the rise of social media that accelerated the global response effort. Social media existed during other recent major natural disasters, but its continuing skyrocketing usage likely surpassed some sort of tipping point, enabling it to substantially change the way we execute disaster relief. Listed below are five ways in which social media aided or altered the disaster relief effort, including both the civilian and the military side:

Social media may have changed disaster relief forever. Future natural disaster relief efforts will likely continue to feature similar response initiatives as social media continue to develop and expand, and continue to supply new avenues for relief. Of course, Haiti’s proximity to the US may have actually allowed the social media disaster relief revolution to take place; the US is a nexus for social media, a highly modernized country, and one with a vast collection of relief organizations. Likewise, a similarly monumental social media relief effort would be likely to take place near, say France or Japan, but less likely in sub-Saharan Africa. In this way, social media’s impact on natural disaster relief efforts may continue to increase on average in the future, but will likely be affected by other variables.

While social media are certainly able to expedite and improve humanitarian relief efforts, there is a wide range of goals they cannot accomplish. They increased a sense of immediacy in responding to the earthquake in Haiti, but that did not necessarily equate to a substantial impact. Social media may have significantly lowered what would have been a much higher casualty count (in an area characterized by poverty and urban slum sprawl), but we cannot know for certain. More sophisticated coordination among relief organizations likely could have improved relief efforts in ways that technology could not; whether social media can assist in developing this sort of coordination is questionable.

Haiti will continue to have problems. Separations in families, destroyed infrastructure, and a lack of security will continue to torment those in the region affected by the earthquake, not to mention that Haiti is Haiti—a country consistently ranked in the 15 worst failed states, poorer than all other nations in the western hemisphere, and continually afflicted by violence including a successful military coup against the ruling power as recent as 2004. What will it take for Haiti to finally recover from the earthquake, let alone the problems that afflicted it before the earthquake, even aside from the hurricanes that barrage it every summer?

But the world’s experiences in disaster relief in Haiti will hopefully enable us to be more successful at disaster relief in the future. We learned that social media enable us to respond to disasters more quickly, and sustain response initiatives longer. We learned that social media enable anyone to participate in relief efforts from anywhere in the world. We learned that however important social media are to disaster relief efforts, there are many tasks they cannot accomplish on their own. To be more effective in the future, we much continue to increase our capacity to leverage social media, but more importantly we must find more effective ways to organize relief efforts among government organizations, militaries, IGOs, and NGOs.

FEMA was bolstered after our failures in the Katrina effort. Perhaps now the US should build up a new administration—be it through USAID, CIDI, or a version of FEMA—dedicated directly to coordinating natural disaster response initiatives, via some combination of Red Cross, Emergency Management, International Development, and military personnel. This sort of command would hopefully improve interagency coordination and task delegation within the US—though these ideals have never been a strong suit of US bureaucracy. Furthermore, any such initiative would still fall short of addressing the greater question, How can we better coordinate alongside foreign relief efforts? Would the US oblige itself to take the lead on every major disaster initiative? Some say yes; we already do by default. But what about other humanitarian crises, including ethnic conflict, slavery, civil war, and genocide? The 21st Century experiences no shortage of these, and somehow the rest of the world—including the US—continues to function as normal.

Social media have a broad capacity to improve natural disaster relief initiatives. Do they have a capacity to improve coordination among civilian organizations and military commands within disaster relief operations? Results so far are unoptimistic. And disaster relief could use the help.

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