New Technologies Helped in Novel Ways With Haiti Earthquake Relief

Relief workers used innovative technologies in unprecedented ways to aid in the recovery of quake-ravaged Haiti, a new report has found.

Interactive maps and SMS (Short Message Service) texts helped guide search-and-rescue teams and find people in need of critical supplies, as the Caribbean nation became a real-world laboratory for new communication tools.

Though the innovations had varying levels of impact in Haiti, they showcased the potential for use in future crises, the report, “Media, Information Systems and Communities: Lessons from Haiti,” concluded. Produced by Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities, the report was supported by Internews and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

“The Haitian experience strongly suggests that digital media and information technology can significantly improve relief efforts with the right on-the-ground coordination,” said Mayur Patel, Knight Foundation’s director of strategic assessment and assistant to the president. “Better integrating these tools into recovery efforts can help save lives in coming crises.”

Among the innovations:

  • Relief workers crowd-sourced information – and acted on it: Reports of trapped people and medical emergencies collected by text were plotted on an online map then used by relief workers. In one example, the U.S. Marines brought water and sanitation devices to a camp after receiving reports that drinking water was in short supply.
  • SMS texts broadcast critical information to Haitians: Cell phone companies, relief groups and media created and used the code 4636 to send messages to tens of thousands about important public health issues.
  • Volunteers created open-source maps as guides: Using handheld GPS devices, volunteers created up-to-date maps to help guide humanitarian groups and the public trying to navigate affected areas.

The report cautions against calling the Haitian experience a “new-media success story,” as some of the approaches – attempted for the first time – faltered. A lack of coordination and understanding of how to use the tools complicated some efforts, for example. In addition, the report found that as in past crises around the world, radio continued to be the most effective tool for serving the information needs of the local population.  

"We have always known that one of the best ways to communicate with affected population in crises is through radio broadcasts. We found in Haiti that innovative technologies not only had an impact on information delivery on their own, but also greatly enhanced the reach and effectiveness of radio," said Mark Frohardt, vice president of humanitarian programs for Internews.

The report contains a series of recommendations for technology groups, media development and humanitarian organizations, national governments and donors on improving coordination in future recovery efforts.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Since 1950, the foundation has granted more than $400 million to advance quality journalism and freedom of expression. Knight Foundation focuses on projects that promote informed and engaged communities and lead to transformational change.

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