Tag Archives: Haiti

Radio in Post-Disaster Haiti

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti was one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory. In the chaos and destruction after the earthquake hit, one radio station continued broadcasting and became a lifeline for Haitians. The station, called Signal FM, somehow withstood the earthquake and its tower was not damaged. Immediately after the earthquake, with electricity supplied by generators, the station started broadcasting important information about where to find help. One woman was even able to find her missing husband through a message she broadcasted on Signal FM. The station stayed on the air constantly for the two weeks after the earthquake. Originally they only had three days of fuel for their generators, but the Haitian government and several NGOs stepped up and provided funding to keep the station on the air. Signal FM organized a panel discussion on-air with journalists to keep people up to date on what was happening in the post-disaster chaos. According to this CNN report Signal FM reached about 3 million people in the Port-au-Prince area during the disaster and was also available to over the Internet. The fact that Signal FM combines traditional radio presence is combined with availability on the Internet is a great example of blending different types of ICTs in order to reach more people, as we saw in the case of the Farm Radio in Africa using SMS to tune people in to radio broadcasts.

Signal FM has been extremely important in disaster recovery in Haiti, especially considering the fact that Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, has only a 62% literacy rate. In this context, the radio is an effective ICT because it can reach large quantities of people in their native language and give them access to critical survival information in a post-disaster setting. The importance and effectiveness of radio in post-earthquake Haiti can be seen in the fact that the U.S. Army handed out solar-powered and hand-cranked radios to around 80,000 Haitians living in  a displacement camp close to Port-au-Prince. In situations of extreme disaster, where other ICTs are not feasible due to the destruction of infrastructure, radio is often the most effective tool in getting critical information to the greatest number of people. According to Louis Richardson, a Haitian earthquake survivor quoted in the CNN report, Signal FM radio was “the most important source of information.”

UN Improves Responses to Humanitarian Crises

The article Improving UN Responses to Humanitarian Crisesby the UN Chronicle  documents the efforts that have been made to improve responses to complex humanitarian crises, including how they plan on incorporating new technologies into that improved effort. It talks about the two different phases that made up this effort:

1) Improving Coordination- one of the huge issues in humanitarian crises is that everyone responds at the same time, with similar intentions for what they do to alleviate suffering, with little coordination to figure out what is already being addressed and what still needs attention. The UN tried to remedy this by creating a humanitarian “cluster” system in 2005; this cluster consisted of UN agencies, NGO’s, and IGO’s. Within these organizations, each would be assigned a cluster: protection, camp coordination and management, water sanitation and hygiene, health, emergency shelter, nutrition, emergency telecommunications, logistics, early recovery, education and agriculture. Each cluster then coordinates with a main UN office for Humanitarian Affairs. These clusters are flawed in that the information they have is difficult to share, and their remains little coordination with the office of humanitarian affairs. Another huge problem is that many in the field were not aware that the clusters even existed, so they werent utilized for their specific function by many agencies on the ground.

2) This cluster system was especially proven to be flawed in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. It was then that the United Nations Foundation, along with other partners published a report on Disaster Relief 2.0, or how new technologies would help make things like the cluster system more effective. These new technologies include crisis mapping (which we worked with in class this week), mobile technologies, geospatial data and active citizen-based reporting. All of these have played a role in improved quality of response and response time in disasters, but the mapping systems have been particularly useful. In Japan in 2011, crowdsource mapping played a huge role for relief workers as they tried to figure out their priorities for delivery of food, shelter and sanitation aid. Mapping was also used during the conflict in Libya to track fighting and the movement of refugees.

The UN report then continues to note how new technologies like the ones above not only are proving extremely useful in disaster settings, but also allow for new voices to play a role in disaster response. Through the use of new media and mapping sources, citizens and not just officials can play a role in reporting where and what needs help most immediately and urgently. The mapping that we plan to do for our final project is not only informative on how to use mapping systems like Open Street Map, also provide us with a skill that is becoming increasingly important in the aid world as a way to support official agencies on the ground.

WaterForLife and #firstworldproblems

In early October, a hubbub was created online when a video of impoverished Haitians reading tweets tagged #firstworldproblems was released by charity WaterforLife. The video, created by marketing firm DDB, attempts to garner donations by pointing out the problems inherent with #firstworldproblems trend. Critics and embarrassed privileged teens and young adults everywhere began to lambaste the campaign for missing the point of the tag, (that they know they’re whining about inconsequential things). If it’s true that there is no such thing as bad publicity however, DDB seems to have accomplished it’s goal. A relatively small and unknown charity has now been written about extensively in newspapers around the world, and their video has received millions of views on Youtube. Criticisms of the campaign in ways also seem to enhance the message: the lives of these individuals are so privileged that they have time to whine about how a water charity is being mean to them.

One of the most thoughtful articles I read about the whole debacle was the article in The Guardian, which talked not just about the video and the backlash, but about the more subtle problems with the trend. Namely, the self-referential tag creates an inside joke that necessarily excludes the unprivileged in the developed and developing world. Further, an us-and-them mentality is created by trends which delineate the world so severely and takes as a given that the developing world has some problems, the developed world has others, and never the twain shall meet.

While I understand the feeling that WaterforLife missed the joke, the video still managed to use social media as a platform and illustration of why they’re mission is so important, which I found exciting and fresh. I also think critical discussions of the problems with exclusionary trends predicated on privilege, such as #firstworldproblems, will be increasingly important in our global world, especially as social media brings us closer than ever.

FrontlineSMS: The Impact of Open Source Tools for Development

Through Mission 4636, 80,000 earthquake victims throughout Haiti were able to solicit help via text message. What’s most astonishing about the project is not the large number of people it was able to help, but the speed at which it was set into motion. From conception to launch, the Mission 4636 came together in a mere 48 hours. People from 10 organizations from around the world dropped everything to build the best platform possible. Among these organizations was one that caught my eye, Frontline SMS:medic, whose director was responsible for obtaining the short code “4636” for the project.

Frontline SMS:medic is one of many programs that utilizes the FrontlineSMS free software program. Through FrontlineSMS, users can text large groups of people anywhere there is a mobile signal. FrontlineSMS enables instantaneous, two-way communication on a large scale by utilizing computers and mobile phones—two technologies that are available to most NGOs. This means a laptop plugged into a cell phone can become a low-cost communication hub. Frontline SMS makes use of open-source software to support development services across the globe and provides easily implemented solutions to many communication barriers in developing countries.

FrontlineSMS:medic is one of the most successful initiatives of the 5 FrontlineSMS programs (others are credit, learn, legal, and radio).  It utilizes FrontlineSMS to improve and extend healthcare delivery systems by helping health workers communicate, coordinate patient care, and provide diagnostics using appropriate cost-effective technologies. The pilot program was launched in 2009 to great results: in six months, hospital workers saved 1200 hours of follow up time and an accompanying $3000 in motorbike fuel. In less than one year, FrontlineSMS:Medic grew to 1,500 end users who were serviced by clinics seeing approximately 3.5 million other patients. Growing from the first pilot at a single hospital in Malawi, programs were subsequently established in 40% of Malawi’s district hospitals and the software was introduced in nine other countries, including Honduras, Haiti, Uganda, Mali, Kenya, South Africa, Cameroon, India and Bangladesh.

FrontlineSMS demonstrates the importance of building upon and implementing open source tools to serve end users and achieve impact in the field of development. For complete information on FrontlineSMS click here. For complete information on FrontlineSMS:Medic click here.

More from Dr. Robert Munro on Tracking Epidemics, Emergency Response, Crowdsourcing, and Natural Language Processing

Today in class, we had a guest lecturer – Dr. Robert Munro – that led the class via a telecommunications source.  His discussion of crowdsourcing and natural language processing was extremely interesting, but there were a few concepts that I did not fully understand.  I decided to do a little more research about these topics online, and  I found this short video that features a brief talk given by Dr. Munro, which gives a great overview of the topics discussed in today’s lectures.  Click here to watch it!

Today’s lecture was extremely insightful and provided us with an example of how ICTs can have a hugely positive impact on development, especially in regards to epidemics and disasters.  The video is a nice supplement to the classroom lecture and gives a brief overview of some of the important topics and an extremely helpful explanation of some of the key terms and concepts discussed in our lecture today.

Here is a video of another lecture given by Dr. Munro: click here to watch this video! This video is longer and provides a more in depth description of the topics discussed today, as well as some topics and examples that Dr. Munro did not have time to cover today.

I wanted to highlight these videos in my blog so that people who were  not able to be in class (ie. non-Tulane students who are interested in the material we cover in our ICT4D course) are able to learn about these interesting ICT4D topics.  This blog is meant to serve as a forum to share information and create a public forum for discussion of ICT4D initiatives.  These initiatives and ICT tools are amazingly interesting and innovative examples of how ICT can be used for development.  I think it is important that these tools and success stories be shared among the development community.

I also think that the fact that the lecture today was presented through telecommunications (which allowed Dr. Monru to present a lecture to our class from a distance location) and the fact that these videos are available to the public on youtube are excellent examples of how ICTs can be useful for education.  Telecomm improves communication capabilities, and forums like youtube allow for information and knowledge to be made available to anyone with internet access for free.  Lectures available on youtube are an excellent example of the democratization of information and knowledge.

Truth in Disaster: “I can’t live without my cell phone”

        Cell phone use has become increasingly important in disasters to warn, react and recover. Phones, both fixed and mobile, allow messages to be delivered quickly and play an integral role in warning before a natural disaster. Mobile phones, specifically, have the capability to send Short Message Services (SMS), which can send data even when phone lines are congested and can quickly be sent to large groups of people. This choice of mobile technology for disaster preparation and response has been tested with the recent earthquake in Haiti when mobile phones helped coordinate humanitarian aid effort, find lost family members and stay up to date with news and conditions.

           This article from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti details exactly how cell phones and radios saved lives post disaster. Thomson Reuters Foundation’s AlertNet humanitarian news service provided residents with the first-ever Emergency Information Service that offered free, practical SMS messages. This service allowed Haitians to:

  •          Direct injured residents to open hospitals
  •           Help search and rescue teams coordinate response
  •           Information alerts through SMS (publicized through radio)
  •           Information to reduce disease risk, find missing persons and protect vulnerable populations

       One of the reasons that this ICT was so effective was the ability to get the SMS networks back up and running within almost a day of the earth quake. Free re-charging was also offered at local mobile carriers.

This experience of cell phones in Haiti prompted FEMA to issue a blog about using cell phones in an emergency here in the United States. FEMA advises citizens to:

  •         Store useful phone numbers (family and emergency)
  •           Utilize twitter through SMS without needing an account
  •           Bookmark useful mobile sites
  •           Backup your battery

Stay safe, stay charged, stay connected!

The 50×15 Foundation: An Organization Working to Bridge the Digital Divide


The digital divide describes the gap between those who have access to information and communication technology and those who do not. The gap can be based on many factors: age, geography, economic status, etc. It plagues not only impoverished and developing countries, but also affects wealthy countries where, for example, the elderly may have much lower access to use of new technologies such as the internet and mobile phones.

There are a variety of organizations working to combat the digital divide. One such organization is the 50×15 Foundation. This organization’s mission is to provide “affordable Internet access and computing capacity to 50 percent of the world’s population by 2015.” By providing these resources to communities formerly without or with costly Internet and computer access, 50×15 provides many people with access to financial services, job hunting, healthcare information, education, and global communication and commerce.

50×15 works with partners around the globe to accelerate the rate of digital inclusion. The organization focuses specifically on high-growth markets. At this time, 50×15 is focusing on initiatives in Africa where only 54 million of 1 billion people currently have access to the Internet. 50×15 has also launched emergency learning labs in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. To date, they have launched more than 30 learning labs in more than a dozen countries.

The 50×15 approach focuses on achieving development through economic growth, an important development strategy over the last several decades of Western thought. 50×15 does this by promoting connections between infrastructure providers, government institutions, and consumers. The organization believes that access to technology will fuel economic growth by providing opportunities in manufacturing and product design, service provision, infrastructure development, and entrepreneurship. As 50×15’s website states “bridging the digital divide isn’t just an act of goodwill; it’s good business.”

In order to promote sustainability, 50×15 works with partner organizations and companies, focusing on the following six areas of development:

  • Power: grid-based, solar, or manual power generation
  • Connectivity: wired, wireless, or satellite service providers
  • Devices: servers, personal computers, thin clients, smart-phones, and other tools to help people access the internet
  • Financing: government programs, financial institutions, and foundations that provide micro-loans and other means of helping local people afford Internet access tools and services
  • Content: locally relevant software applications and information available in multiple languages
  • Expertise: training, repair services, and general ecosystem support
  • Structure design: pre-planning for technology when designing a building

50×15 is an interesting example of a public-private entity working to bridge the digital divide. 50×15 has demonstrated success. As Flavio Pimenta of Brazil states, “Our collaboration [with the 50×15 Foundation] has put us on a path to creating a beautiful future, building something together that will deliver fruits for our children and also be completely self-sustaining.” However, despite success stories like this, many might argue that 50×15’s focus on generating economic growth is an oversimplified, neoliberal agenda. Economic growth is, without a doubt, one aspect of international development. However, many, including myself, would argue that other factors such as quality of life, reduction of inequality, and empowerment are equally important development goals. 50×15 seems to have a fairly one-dimensional approach to the issue of the digital divide and, because of this, may be missing out on opportunities to make an even greater impact.