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What YOU could do to help in a crisis

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Start something, be open to others joining you and changing your initial concept, writes Patrick Meier in NatGeo, while recalling his experience after the Haiti earthquake:

The National Geographic Society has a long history of crisis mapping disasters. But what happened in Haiti on January 12, 2010 would forever change the very concept of a crisis map. A devastating earthquake struck the country’s capital that Tuesday afternoon. I was overwhelmed with emotions when I heard the news just an hour later. Over 100,000 people were feared dead. Some very close friends of mine were doing research in Port-au-Prince at the time and I had no idea whether they had survived the earthquake. So I launched a live crisis map of Haiti. But this was an emotional reaction rather than a calculated plan with a detailed strategy. I was in shock and felt the need to do something, anything. It was only after midnight that I finally got an SMS reply from my friends. They had narrowly escaped a collapsing building. But many, many others were not near as lucky. I continued mapping.

I was using the Ushahidi platform, a free and open source mapping technology from Africa. Think of Ushahidi, which means “witness” in Swahili, as a multi-media inbox connected to a live map. I added these Twitter users to my inbox and began mapping the most urgent Tweets (those that had enough geographic information to be mapped). The following night, several friends joined me in the living room of my dorm to help map Haiti’s needs.

Haiti disaster map screen shot

But mapping this content became more and more challenging because Port-au-Prince was half missing on the the Google Map of Haiti. The city and roads had not been fully mapped by Google Inc. So some colleagues at OpenStreetMap crowdsourced the most detailed roadmap of Haiti ever produced in just a matter of days. They used satellite imagery provided by the World Bank to carefully trace the road network onto an OpenStreetMap of Haiti. In fact, hundreds of volunteers from all around the world collaborated in these efforts. The following video is an animation of this tracing in action. Over 1.4 million edits/traces (flashes of light in the video) were made to the map in just a matter of weeks.

Just hours after launching the crisis map, we also set up an international SMS number that members of the Haitian Diaspora could text important reports for us to map. The next day, my colleague Josh Nesbit from Medic Mobile started looking for local SMS options to support our Ushahidi Haiti Project.

Incredibly, someone following his Twitter feed in Cameroon put him in touch with a colleague who was working at Digicel, the largest telecommunications company in Haiti. Within days, we had secured a toll-free SMS number (4636) that allowed anyone in Haiti to text in their most urgent needs and location. This was made possible thanks to multiple groups: Thomson-Reuters Foundation, InSTEDD, US State Department and of course Digicel. In the days that followed, colleagues in Port-au-Prince got the word out about this SMS number by visiting several local community radio stations. They also explained that this was only an information service, not a humanitarian hotline.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

July 7, 2012 at 10:10 am

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