Thursday, January 21, 2010

I'd like to make everyone out there aware of something pretty amazing that is happening on the Fletcher campus right now. As we speak dozens of graduate students are combing through thousands and text messages and tweets sent from Haiti and using them to direct search and rescue teams on the ground to people in need. This is an unprecedented event that I am positive will soon become the norm for international incident response.

Fletcher students have taken software that was initially designed to plot crisis incidents in Kenya and have transformed it into something that is actually helping first responders in real time. For years, experts in the security community have wondered how best to coordinate civilian and military efforts in a way that is helpful to both the military and civilian communities without compromising either communities independence or ability to function. Ushahidi has for the first time transformed crowd sourcing into the ideal link between civilian and military networks. Through various media networks, Fletcher students have gotten the word out to people on the ground in Haiti that if they text 4636 on their cell phones they will reach the Ushahidi network, which is mostly being run out of the graduate dorm on the Fletcher campus, but is also reaching volunteers in Geneva, and various countries in Africa as well. These texts communicate locations where people are either trapped under rubble or are in need of various supplies and or medical attention. Students at Fletcher then use Google Earth and various other mapping software to locate exact GPS coordinates for those in need of help and plot that location on a map located on a dedicated Ushahidi website (see the attached link). Numerous international organizations and militaries ranging from SOUTHCOM to the American Red Cross use these geo cordinates to launch aid missions to these exact locations. So far Fletcher students working through the Ushahidi network are responsible for at least 14 lives being saved. In other instances orphanages have texted that they are in dire need of water and within hours trucks arrive with the neccessary supplies. My hat goes off to these dedicated students who are litteraly working around the clock to supply teams on the ground with the appropriate coordinates.

In addition to text messages, the Ushahidi network is also monitoring twitter and facebook to find people who are in need of help. When not enough information is provided to pin point an exact location, Fletcher students write back to those who are twitting and facebooking to garner more precise information. I have to reiterate once again that as far as I know such a response has never been coordinated to a disaster using such social networking sites.

In another unprecedented move, the US military has released all of its satellite data for Haiti to allow people involved in crowd sourcing such as the Ushahidi network to actually plot where structures have collapsed and identify which roads are useable to deliver aid.

Currently, the following organizations are responding to geo-coordinates delivered by Fletcher students through the Ushahidi network:

Red cross
United Nations Foundation
Plan International
Charity Water
Clinton Foundation
US State Department
International Medical Corps

Ultimately, I believe that a conference involving multiple government agencies and leading NGO's will need to be conducted in order to discuss the effectiveness of crowd sourcing for future disaster response. Hard questions will need to be asked such as, were more lives saved due to exact coordinates being provided or were more people lost because teams were directed to a particular spot where 50 people were starving instead of another closer community of 500 simply because the smaller community possessed a cell phone? Once again though I have to say regardless of the outcome that my hat goes off to the innovative individuals who decided to try to make a difference if they could, and in my opinion their contribution has been outstandingly signifigant.

To leave you with one thought, I wonder if this is something that has been so successful mostly on account of the fact that it is so new. By this I mean that because this is such a new idea that only those in need and those responding to them are yet aware of this network. With every great idea we must consider the downsides. If for instance this same crowd sourcing system is used again to respond to incidences of violence in post election Kenya, do we run the risk of playing into the hands of people with bad intentions who do not wish to see people helped and thus text and tweet in false reports in order to divert the attention of first responders to those in need? This is an issue that certainly needs to be addressed in the future and I hope to see some dialogue started in the comments section of this blog. But for now my best goes out to those people struggling to survive in Haiti, the first responders on the ground and the tireless students at Fletcher.

And that's my fifty cents (inflation...)


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