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Jan. 11, 2011, 11 a.m.

A year later, lessons for the media from the Haiti earthquake response

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, as well as the anniversary of one of the largest ever humanitarian responses to a natural disaster, with almost $3.8 billion in aid given or pledged for Haiti relief. The international response to the crisis required coordination between the Haitian government, foreign governments, NGOs, and the people directly affected by the disaster, becoming a real-world laboratory for testing new tools — from SMS short messaging to crowdsourced crisis mapping with Ushahidi — according to a new report from the Knight Foundation. And the response’s successes and failures could provide valuable lessons both for responding to the next crisis and for better understanding mass media.

Three innovative practices in particular, the report says, were put to the test: broadcasting crisis information with SMS, crowdsourcing data into actionable information, and using open mapping tools to meet humanitarian needs.

The report found that none of them, however, would have been as effective without one very low-tech tool: radio.

Radio still Haiti’s dominant medium

In a country with a literacy rate of just 52 percent, traditional newspapers and Internet access would have been of low value even if the presses and power lines hadn’t been knocked out of commission. Inexpensive, resilient, and nearly universal radio access, however, cut past literacy and economic boundaries, particularly since one station, Signal FM, managed to continue operation throughout the crisis. Signal FM and other stations as they returned to broadcasting, served as vital information sources, detailing aid and emergency procedures and helping to connect survivors with other resources.

“Although much of the attention has been paid to new media technologies, radio was the most effective tool for serving the needs of the public,” the report notes. But while radio provided the first line of communications, new technologies were critically in actually connecting communities with the aid they needed.

For help, text 4636

Despite erratic cellular service (cell towers would often go live for a few hours, followed by hours of silence), SMS text messaging proved an invaluable tool. Even when coverage was down, messages could be queued and then sent when access returned. The first usage was informal, the Knight report states, with local journalists receiving pleas for help or reports from the ground. But local service provider Digicel, collaborating with non-profit InSTEDD, set up a dedicated, free short code service at the number 4636, which was up and running four days after the quake and allowed Haitians to text in reports and even requests for emergency help — even as the system was used by the Thomson Reuters Foundation to broadcast basic shelter, hygiene and security alerts to roughly 26,000 subscribers.

Across the Atlantic, SMS messages were also playing a very important relief role: raising money. SMS was widely used by the Red Cross and other organizations in the United States to spur convenient giving, helping raise $30 million in the 10 days after the earthquake. In fact, more people donated via text messaging (14 percent) than telephone (12 percent) or e-mail (5 percent).

Despite the invaluable data in the flood of wireless bits, though, the mix of languages, formats, and levels of urgency sent in to relief workers also posed serious logistical hurdles.

Crowdsourcing through the diaspora

Critical to parsing through all the data were centers far outside of Haiti, like one group in Boston that helped geolocate emergency texts, information that was then passed along to relief workers on location. Groups of Haitian expatriates helped translate the flood of data from Creole, French, and Spanish into English, passing it along to the most appropriate aid organizations as well as the U.S. Marines, who often served as the basis for search-and-rescue missions.

In Haiti, the report found the use crowdsourced emergency information had hit a turning point, helping inform real-time decision-making.

“In most previous efforts, information was collected mostly to understand when, where and why events were occurring. It had been relatively rare for such information to be useful for actual response to a specific problem,” the report states. “In Haiti, by contrast, limited numbers of humanitarian responders attempted to include crowdsourced information to help form their decisions about where to respond, to send search-andrescue teams, to identify collapsed structures and to deliver resources. While these efforts were not systemic in nature, they were nonetheless groundbreaking.”

Ushahidi mapping provides real-time relief

The report also highlights the use of crowdmapping tool Ushahidi, which volunteers used to map many of the incoming pleas for help to determine trouble “hot spots” and inform rescue operations where they were needed. Haiti.ushahidi.com served as one focal point for cataloging submitted public health, security and other dangers, making it easy to quickly see what problems a particular area was facing and quickly deploy help there.

While the report is careful to note that these efforts were limited, it highlights the potential noted that even these early efforts were making a difference. According to a Ushahidi team leader at Tufts, “On the third day, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) called us to say keep mapping no matter what people say – it’s saving lives.”

The changed role of media in crisis

While the report focuses on primarily local and “humanitarian media,” it notes that journalists often played an important role in not just documenting the damage and recovery, but in connecting local communities with information when traditional lines of communication were severely disrupted. Trusted on-air radio personalities switched from delivering hit music to health bulletins, while reporters passed along reports of danger and distress. Radio personality Cedre Paul, the host of “Radio One Haiti,” sent out “prolific Twitter messages that provided real-time updates to his many followers,” Knight reports.

While the blurred role of NGOs in media serve is by no means new, Haiti served as a powerful reminder of the dual role — both documenting and aiding — that news organizations can play in a crisis. Even traditional outlets, like CNN and The New York Times, served in relief capacities by partnering with NGOs and Google to create a unified Haitian people finder.

Unmet potential

While the report focuses on the successes, it recognizes that many barriers still needed to be deal with in order for the highlighted technologies to have a maximum impact, particularly in regards to education and policies within more traditiona aid and government organizations, which often have strict privacy rules, for example, that often conflict with the transparency required by crowdsourced projects like Ushahidi. Still, both sides, the technologists and the aid organizations, realized that gains made clear from cooperation, the report states, and strides are being made, it says, towards better integration of these technologies into traditional response plans.

“This process of creating new forms of collaboration between different organizational cultures will not be quick or easy,” the report concludes. “However, the promise of such collaboration is recognized by many of those involved, on both sides of the equation. The question is not whether this process will advance, but how.”

The full Knight report and related materials are available for download.

POSTED     Jan. 11, 2011, 11 a.m.
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