How Haiti earthquake launched 'digital humanitarianism'

On the anniversary of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, it is remarkable to see what was learned about 'crisis mapping' from social media during the natural disaster.

AP Photo
A boy sits next to his house in a refugee camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 10. The Haitian government delivered a progress report on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands. Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe highlighted a drop in the number of people living in settlements.

When an earthquake devastated Haiti four years ago on Jan. 12, it also shook up how the world responds to such disasters. With the use of the Internet and mobile phones, survivors in Haiti sent out cries for help through tweets, texting, Facebook, and other digital media. Volunteers around the world then sifted the information to create a digital map on computers to guide relief workers and the American military toward the people most in need.

This real-time “crisis mapping” saved thousands of lives.

On the fourth anniversary of the earthquake, it is worth noting how much “digital humanitarianism” has come of age, breaking down the barriers of space and time and allowing individuals globally to better help others after a large natural disaster.

With each leap in communication technology, compassion knows fewer boundaries. Just as CNN improved on the speed of newspapers in reporting on a crisis, the digital mapping of social media improves on CNN, compiling and digesting data through crowdsourcing. During Roman times, Jesus asked, “Having ears, hear ye not?” Today, the question might be: “Having a crisis map of disaster X, respond ye not?”

The technique of digital mapping from large groups of people first gained attention in Kenya in 2007-08 when social-media reports were used to warn of possible post-election violence. But after the Haiti quake, it took off for humanitarian purposes, notably after the 2011 tsunami in Japan and the giant typhoon in the Philippines last November.

And just in time. The United Nations reports that the number of people in need of humanitarian aid each year has nearly doubled to about 60 million over the past decade.

Using computers to sift through social media during a crisis is still a work in progress. The technique may not work in areas where smart phones are few, the Internet is broken or nonexistent, or literacy rates are low. Special software is needed to translate tweets or texts from one language to another.

Most of all, the accuracy of reports cannot always be assured. Still, when such information is supplemented by satellite imagery or reports from helicopters, it can generate critical information about problems such as broken bridges, food shortages, or acute health needs.

Crisis maps not only raise awareness of a disaster but can hold aid agencies more accountable for their response. By relying on social media, such maps can engage tech-savvy young people. They can help lift the gloom around a disaster by making it easier to bring comfort to those in need.

Haiti itself still needs more foreign assistance and domestic reforms to recover from the 2010 earthquake. But as a testing ground for the new technology of crisis mapping, the country has made a global contribution.

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