Agencies harness social media for Haiti relief efforts

Social media, satellite communications spring into action to help earthquake-devastated Haiti

The federal government is playing a major role in earthquake relief and recovery efforts in Haiti, aided by an array of technology tools, some of which were not been available in past disasters. Social media, satellite communications and other innovations could make a real difference as the battered island nation struggles to regain some degree of normalcy.

Social media tools, significantly Twitter and Facebook are playing a major role in communicating information about the effort. The State Department began sharing information on its official Facebook pages hours after the earthquake struck.

One post told people who want to donate money or provide assistance whom to contact. Persons responding to the post shared other ways to provide assistance.

State's Web site points people wishing to donate or provide assistance to the Center For International Disaster Information. The center operates under a grant from the United States Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and support from IBM.

Another State post provided phone numbers for people in the United States and Canada looking for U.S. citizens in Haiti and another post pulled information from a State Department blog on how to donate money.

“For those interested in helping immediately, simply text ‘HAITI’ to ‘90999’ and a donation of $10 will be given automatically to the Red Cross to help with relief efforts, charged to your cell phone bill,” the post states. “Or you can go online to organizations like the Red Cross and Mercy Corps to make a contribution to the disaster relief efforts.”

Defense Department officials dispatched USS Carl Vinson, a supercarrier, to provide support in Haiti. The news was published on the ship’s official Facebook page.

“As you may know, the USS Carl Vinson is en route to support first responder humanitarian relief & disaster response operations in Haiti following the devastating earthquake that occurred yesterday. This effort is a core mission of carrier operations and our crew is well trained to carry out this mission. We are committed to doing everything we can to help save lives and provide relief to the victims of this disaster,” the Facebook post states.

Meanwhile. people took to Twitter to discuss the Vinson mission. Twitter user AmySnow17 tweeted that she saw her brother on the Vinson on CNN.

Okeechobeeeoc tweeted, “USS Carl Vinson on its way. Has 4 distilling plants -- can produce 400,000 US gallons (1,500 m³) of potable water a day.”

And, miesque01 said, “The USS Carl Vinson's call sign is "Gold Eagle." She is due to arrive off the coast of Haiti today. Thank the U.S. Navy!”

Meanwhile, the first U.S. asset on the scene in post-earthquake Haiti was Coast Guard Cutter Forward, which arrived in Port Au Prince the morning of Jan. 13. The cutter is equipped with satellite communications equipment and the ability to provide coordination to military aircraft in the area. Another cutter, the Mohawk, was scheduled to arrive later in the day and two Coast Guard aircraft were flying along the coast of Western Haiti doing damage assessments and searches for people needing assistance. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Jan. 13 the Federal Emergency Management Agency “stands ready to provide assistance as requested.” The lead U.S. response agencies are the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Other variations of Twitter also had heavy use, particularly TwitPic. One person posted a photo of an American arriving in Guantanamo Bay to be treated for traumatic injuries suffered in Port-au-Prince.

The FBI posted a warning on its Facebook page warning people to carefully scrutinize any requests for assistance.
“Past tragedies and natural disasters have prompted individuals with criminal intent to solicit contributions purportedly for a charitable organization and/or a good cause,” the post states.

Facebook itself launched a new site at  to help its members find ways to help. “The devastating earthquake in Haiti has underscored the Internet’s critical role in connecting the world’s population in times of tragedy,” said Andrew Noyes, Facebook’s manager of public policy communications.



About the Authors

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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