Using the Startup Process to Change Disaster Relief

In early December a Supernova session entitled, How Startup Companies Can Change the World had presenters brainstorm ways to connect the technology industry with policy makers. Coupled with many of the discussions already taking place in the Gov. 2.0 movement, the session looked at how technologists can contribute to projects they might not normally be associated with. This morning we received news on how one initiative is taking this collaboration further by applying the labor-on-demand service model so common to startups and putting it to use for disaster relief.

Three months after the earthquake in Haiti, workforce-on-demand service Crowdflower issued the results of its latest initiative with Mission 4636. Following the quake, Mission 4636 members – in association with open-source disaster technology provider Instedd, refugee microwork provider Samasource and real-time mapping and tracking service Ushahidi – issued a text message short code (4636) for Haitians requiring urgent help. From there, Crowdflower and Samasource’s remote labor forces collected, translated and geocoded over 16,000 messages. The messages were then released as an RSS feed and groups like the Red Cross, charity:water, UNDP and FEMA tracked the feeds for messages that pertained to their work specifically.

According to the group, at peak volume more than 5,000 Haitian distress messages were processed in one hour. This single stream of information helped ensure that duplicate efforts from these normally fragmented government and NGO groups were kept to a minimum.

Said Crowdflower CEO Lukas Biewald, “Harnessing thousands of volunteers would normally create a logistical nightmare, but it is specifically this kind of amorphous virtual labor force that the CrowdFlower platform was built to accommodate.”

While it’s certainly unconventional to see a remote labor force employed for disaster relief of this magnitude, it’s not unrealistic to think that this practice might become common in a location where cell tower infrastructure remains intact. Perhaps the bigger question for the startup community is what other world-changing solutions are sitting right under our noses? If you’ve got examples of how startup processes can improve disaster relief and emergency services let us know in the comments below.

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