Tragedy in Haiti: The mother of invention

Telecoms, social media aid the efforts of relief organizations on the ground in Haiti

Even as the international community struggled to respond to the tragedy unfolding in Haiti, information technology experts in the public and private sectors were on the move.

A massive earthquake leveled the island’s infrastructure Jan. 12, leaving tens of thousands dead and millions homeless and destitute. Relief forces at first could not deliver what was most needed — food, water and medical care — but volunteers from the United States and many other nations looked for every available means of supporting relief operations and easing the suffering of the quake’s survivors.

Communication was a primary concern because most traditional landlines and cellular services had been knocked out. So the Defense Information Systems Agency stepped in to offer telecommunications services to aid organizations and support air traffic control and freight management at the Port-au-Prince airport, writes J. Nicholas Hoover at InformationWeek.

DISA also set up an online system to help nongovernmental organizations in the United States and abroad coordinate relief efforts. The system, known as the Transnational Information Sharing Cooperation system, had been in beta testing, Hoover reports.

A number of organizations were trying to deliver additional communications equipment, including the United Nations Foundation, the World Food Program and the International Telecommunication Union. In one case, a WFP official found an unused satellite system in northern Haiti, which he planned to deliver to Port-au-Prince under military escort, reports Stephen Lawson for the IDG News Service.

Telecoms Sans Frontières (Telecommunications without Borders), which supports relief operations around the world, is providing satellite and wireless networking equipment along with two teams of experts who have been trained in rapid-response operations, according to Network World’s Tim Greene. The teams are focused on setting up links between rescue operations on the island and will also help survivors contact relatives.

Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing site focused on crisis response, did its best to help Haitians get in touch immediately after the quake. Although the earthquake knocked out most traditional communications systems, Haitians were able to get online via satellite links. “Twitter and other social network sites were a lifeline for communications in the hours and days after the earthquake,” writes Lucas Mearian for Computerworld.

Relief organizations are also finding ways to turn social media to their advantage. Most notably, the American Red Cross, with assistance from the State Department, has received $22 million, or more than 20 percent of its donations earmarked for Haiti, via a text messaging-based donation program set up by mGive. Cell phone subscribers simply text “Haiti” to 90999 to donate $10, and the money is billed directly to their accounts.

Normally, it would take several weeks to get such a program up and running. But shortly after the quake hit, a State Department official put in a call to top officials at mGive and asked them to streamline the process, writes the New York Times’ Stephanie Strom.

iTunes, Apple’s online music service, also got in on the act, adding a page from which shoppers can donate money, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the Red Cross. Apple makes it clear that the company will not share any information about the donors with the Red Cross, writes Jonathan Seff at the Industry Standard.

And finally this: A group called Faith Comes by Hearing, is shipping 600 solar-powered audio versions of the Bible to Haiti. The units will broadcast the text in Haitian Creole to 300 people at a time, Reuters reports.

About the Author

John Monroe is Senior Events Editor for the 1105 Public Sector Media Group, where he is responsible for overseeing the development of content for print and online content, as well as events. John has more than 20 years of experience covering the information technology field. Most recently he served as Editor-in-Chief of Federal Computer Week. Previously, he served as editor of three sister publications: civic.com, which covered the state and local government IT market, Government Health IT, and Defense Systems.

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