When the catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, Patrick Meier, a doctoral candidate at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and International Diplomacy in Medford, Massachusetts, and cofounder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers wanted to help. He contacted friend and programmer David Kobia in Atlanta about adopting a simple Web-based crisis-mapping program they developed two years earlier in response to post election violence in Kenya. It was called Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili. With the program, reports on anything from security incidents to a call for specific resources can be “crowdsourced” and plotted on an online map in near-real time for the world to see.
While Kobia and others around the world started programming a version for Haiti, Meier assembled student volunteers for an Ushahidi operations center on the Fletcher campus; it was up and running within 12 hours. They flooded social networking sites like Facebook with requests for volunteers capable of translating Haitians’ native tongue of Creole into English.
Meanwhile in Haiti, two small technology nonprofits, FrontlineSMS and InSTEDD, were setting up a new wireless number on their own computer networks—4636. Josh Nesbit, executive director of affiliate Frontline SMS Medic, explains that like terrestrial radio, wireless networks were back up in Haiti just a few days after the disaster and capable of handling Short Message Service (SMS) texts well before voice service was restored. InSTEDD spread the word about the number to local media. Radio stations that went back on the air became Haitians’ primary source for information; they instructed anyone with critical needs to send a text to 4636.
Any volunteer involved in the 4636 project with a notebook computer and a cellular phone could receive and process texts to the number. Roughly 1,000 volunteers around the world translated the messages. The system software aggregated the text messages in a single queue to prevent duplicate responses to requests for aid. Project volunteers also searched through Twitter posts from the region, looking for victims who had tagged posts with the number 4636.
All of the input was then plotted onto the Ushahidi Haiti map. On a Ushahidi crisis map, red dots plot locations and the number of messages submitted from a given point. More granular data is available by clicking on a series of toolbar icons. Messages are typed into categories—emergencies, infrastructure damage, security threats, or public health events—and further into subtypes. Emergencies, for example, are designated as fires, trapped individuals, critical illnesses, or highly vulnerable persons.
Nesbit acknowledges that location was “the million dollar question.” Cell-tower-based triangulation is fairly inaccurate in fully operational cellular networks, let alone those devastated by disasters. Initially, the 4636 project asked that victims text “need and location,” but they soon changed that request to the more specific “need and address.”
Another problem was the sheer volume of the responses. Within days of the quake, the project was inundated with messages to the point that they shelved the requests for food and water to focus on more critical needs like severe illnesses and victims trapped in rubble.
Meier and his fellow volunteers were surprised to learn that their map had become a primary situational awareness tool for organizations ranging from the International Red Cross to the myriad U.S. agencies aiding in the response.
So reliable was the project’s information from the ground that both the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard established full-time Skype connections with the center at Fletcher, where volunteers immediately fed commanders information about victims in critical need of rescue.
Within a month of the quake, the project had mapped more than 2,500 messages. The number of lives the effort saved is unknown, although a representative of the U.S. Marine Corps, which used the map to prioritize reconnaissance and assessment missions, estimated that it had saved hundreds. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, who is pushing his agency to exploit Web 2.0 tools, called the map “the most comprehensive and up-to-date map available to the humanitarian community.”
A basic version of Ushahidi is available for free download. Meier tells Security Management that an updated, open-source version is in the works, along with formal use guidelines and a toolkit for planning and training.