Tech volunteers mobilize to aid quake relief
The humanitarian response to disaster relief in Haiti set off a grassroots movement of community-based tech volunteerism. Through a series of barcamp-style events convened in major cities in the U.S., Canada, Britain and Colombia, web-technology volunteers donated time and expertise to create digital tools to help quake-relief and rescue workers in Haiti.
The tools range from digital maps of Port-au-Prince, desperately needed as relief and recovery operations began, to a crisis wiki that can be adapted for future disasters.
Social networks, viral media coverage, and a can-do spirit fueled the code-fests, which swelled with volunteers from weekend to weekend. Volunteers lacking code-writing skills were welcomed to collect and process data.
CrisisCamps convened in five U.S. cities and London, England, on Jan. 16 drew some 400 volunteers, according to Andy Carvin, senior strategist of social media for NPR, which hosted crisis camps over two consecutive weekends. By Jan. 23, camps had been organized in 12 cities in four countries, enlisting nearly 700 participants. Two more CrisisCamps, in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, were scheduled for last weekend.
Among the camps’ first software products were an iPhone app displaying GPS-powered maps of Haiti and a Creole–to-English (and reverse) translator app called Tradui, designed for off-line use on both iPhones and Android phones. (“Tradui” is the Creole word for “translate.”) Both tools were created with the assumption that relief workers and rescuers would download and install them on their smartphones before going to Haiti.
The volunteers also fast tracked an online people-finder tool that pulls together missing-persons data from multiple sources in Haiti, created by Google under a Creative Commons license. The We Need/We Have Exchange, also recently completed, is a message board modeled on Craigslist for nonprofits operating in the disaster zone.
Completing the GPS maps took 200 person-hours, involving 30 volunteers, according to Carvin. “Before the earthquake there were limited digital maps of Haiti. Now you’ve got detailed, hand-drawn digital maps at a building-by-building level with data on top of it” that relays details from incident reports by relief and rescue groups.
The groundswell of interest across multiple time zones helped move projects along quickly but required diligence to keep everyone on track. “With the expansion of the whole concept to many more cities and many more volunteers, we’re now trying to figure out how to make it scalable so no one is working at cross purposes,” Carvin said. Through a system of conference calls, Google groups and hand-off documents, volunteers in London, for example, turn their work over to a project team ready to begin coding in the next time zone.
Technology volunteerism has evolved over the years, through multiple crises, but the response to the disaster in Haiti is unprecedented. Carvin says he first became involved in an online discussion forum created after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. That effort focused on sorting facts from rumors about the attacks.
A community of volunteers later developed tech projects responding to major natural disasters, including the Asian Tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Hurricane Gustav in 2008. Most of the volunteers worked together virtually, coding in their living rooms or workplaces and coordinating their efforts via wikis, e-mail, conference calls and social-networking tools. The person finder and the crisis wiki were adapted from online resources created through these earlier efforts, Carvin said.
Last year, after a series of tweet-ups and barcamps among tech volunteers and representatives of crisis response and humanitarian relief groups, among others, participants organized the Crisis Commons. The group’s account of its startup says the Crisis Commons chartered itself as a way for volunteers, academia, nonprofits, companies and government officials “to share best practices and lessons learned to advocate for further use of technology and telecommunications to assist citizens and communities during crisis.” Details on the latest work, as well as upcoming camps in Canada, the U.S., and England, are now posted on CrisisCommons.org.
“One of the most interesting things is, as there are many more virtual ways for us to communicate with each other, we’re all gravitating to getting together in person,” Carvin said. “You have them work for 10 hours, cranking out iPhone apps, and they’re working in sync with each other,” Carvin said. “It’s much easier if someone is going on the wrong track to say, ‘Hold on a minute!’”
“There’s something about getting people in a room, laying out lots of soda, sugary food and pizza — everything you can to crank them up.”
Volunteers' work helps Google create missing-persons widget
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Posted Feb. 10, 2010
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