Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Crowdsourcing Aid: Haiti

The earthquake in Haiti is becoming another important test of social media in advocacy: Catholic Relief Services is using Skype and Facebook in its efforts (phone service is down), while Oxfam is making use of the audio blog site ipadio, so its people can broadcast live updates about their efforts in and around the disaster zone.

Ushahidi, a social media platform that crowdsources and maps crisis data, also got off to a running start, deploying a site for Haiti——within hours of the quake. Ushahidi's goal in Haiti: to provide people with real-time information about any quake-related violence as well as up-to-the-minute data on where to find the closest doctors, supplies, medicine, and shelter.

Ushahidi—which means "testimony" in Swahili—was initially created as an early-warning system amid the savage, inter-tribal violence that followed the Kenyan presidential election in late 2007. A government ban on live media throughout that crisis made Ushahidi one of the only places where citizens could share information about the attacks.

In Haiti, Ushahidi is again producing "heat maps"—visualizations of places where civic passions overheat or where help is most concentrated and available. If Haitians can "see" where violence or aid is concentrated in real time during the crisis, says cofounder David Kobaya, they can manage their survival more effectively. Further, those sending aid can target it more precisely to the areas that need it the most.

Ushahidi asks citizens to call, text, or email site editors with eye-witness reports or accounts passed along from people on the ground; the nonprofit then aggregates the reports and makes a map, which is posted and updated in close to real-time. The more people who send in information, the better; Kobaya says more information tends to verify itself over time.

For more on Ushahidi, see "Mob Protection," a Cause Global profile of Ushahidi from September 2008.

For other examples of how social media are coming to the aid of earthquake survivors in Haiti—and to some of the aid groups trying hard to get medicine and supplies into the devastated capital of Port-au-Prince, see the following:

* Haitian singer Wyclef Jean sent out the following appeal on Twitter before most aid agencies knew whether their people on the ground were safe: "Haiti needs your help if you r in the US text Yele to 501 501 and 5 dollars will go toward earthquake relief in Haiti. International donations can be made @"

* techPresident reports that SMS donations to the Red Cross are being passed through without any carrier fees or processing fees, with the Mobile Giving Foundation and MGive handling the transactions and declining to take a cut. Texting HAITI to 90999 sends $10 USD to the Red Cross. Donations are flooding into the Red Cross by text message: within a few hours of operation Wednesday, the program had raised $750,000 from about 75,000 individual contributions, according to Red Cross officials. According, a news blog covering digital media, mGive's co-founder and chairman, James Eberhard, was awakened in Pakistan by U.S. State Department social media advisor Alec Ross to get the short code up and running. Since then, #Haiti and #RedCross have all become major trending topics on Twitter, mocoNews reports.

* The State Department is tweeting updates from the ground and from Washington.

* Partners in Health, led by Dr. Paul Farmer (Mountains Beyond Mountains), is leading an aggressive online fundraising drive for the country in which it has been working for many years now.

*Hundreds of tweets per minute have been pouring into Twitter's #haiti hashtag feed, providing added perspectives to the digital narrative of the suffering, and Twitter user @troylivesay, based in Port-au-Prince, has been posting updates of the aftermath. His tweets have included: "Leaving to look for a list of people; will try hard to report back" and "church groups are singing throughout the city all through the night in prayer. It is a beautiful sound in the middle of a horrible tragedy."

*, a crowdsourced news site from citizen journalists around the globe, has been providing first-person accounts from the ground and independent news stories since minutes after the quake.

* Twitpics—photographs taken on mobile phones and transmitted instantly around the world via Twitter—are helping to provide a visual narrative of the suffering, both to the public at large as well as to established news organizations, including CNN, which otherwise would not have had access to immediate video and photographs of the devastation. @CarelPedre, the Twitter handle for Carel Pedre—one of Haiti's most popular radio and TV hosts—has been sending out dozens of photographs (including the one illustrating this post, above). Check updates on his Twitter feed.

* Dozens of Twitter lists have been created to share detailed information from the ground. See, for example, @georgiap/live-from-haiti

* is providing a list of #charity organizations active in Haiti

Watch this space for updates.

(Twitpic by journalist @CarelPedre courtesy Mashable)

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