Relief agencies, companies and volunteers came together and built a global network of systems and people to coordinate emergency aid operations for the Haiti earthquake victims.

This piecing together of a jigsaw of different organizations and technologies with one common goal serves as a testament to what is possible using cloud computing and may serve as a template for disaster relief operations in the future.

SMS and Radio

Whilst SMS is low tech in comparison to mobile services like 3G and Wi-Fi, its simplicity is its success. Repairing or erecting temporary cell towers is a far more efficient way to reach people than fixing wire-line infrastructure. As SMS is a basic feature supported by all handsets, it is widespread and popular in Haiti.

A short-code weather service (4636) was commandeered and setup on the Digicel and Comcel networks to serve as a gateway for anyone who could access a mobile phone. Josh Nesbit co-founder of FrontlineSMS:Medic humbly describes his involvement as a “co-coordinator” who put together the SMS team by getting lots of different volunteers and organizations talking together. The work was done by people like Jean-Marc Castera, a Haitian network engineer for Digicel, and Nicolás di Tada from InSTEDD who went station to station and made sure the message got out and was clear. The service was publicized via local radio stations and word of mouth.

The earthquake hit on Jan. 12, and the first emergency messages from Haitians were being received four days later on Jan. 16.

Translation and Classification

Messages received were forwarded onto a crowdsourced team powered by CrowdFlower and SamaSource who would translate the messages into English and then classify them. Other information such as addresses, mobile number and map coordinates were derived from the cell locations.

Once classified, messages and the accompanying information was forwarded on to a number of different agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United States Coast Guard.

Messages relating to lost or found people would be forwarded to people finder services. Mobile phone numbers were added to a distribution list to receive information bulletins via the Thomson Reuters Foundation AlertNet and InSTEDD.

The Big Picture

An open source piece of software called Ushahidi was re-purposed by volunteers wanting to assist from afar. They created a Web portal to visualize and collate this information for relief agencies and the public.

Ushahidi, which means ‘testimony’ in Swahili, was originally developed to map reports of post-election violence in Kenya. Its ability to graphically display maps and “hotspots” was ideally suited for visualizing areas where relief was most needed.

The Future?

The earthquake disaster in Haiti happened less than a month ago and the emergency support service built has already served over 26,000 messages and played a vital role in coordinating the relief effort. You can imagine what an impact this service has to the people who need it most when you consider one such message:

“We need water, food and medications. We are about 950 people. Thank you Abner”

The world may just have had its first glimpse of a truly global disaster management system. We should marvel at the scale of problem it tackled and how quickly it was developed. The use of cloud services like the crowdsourcing platforms and their APIs demonstrates how quickly cloud services can be used to integrate traditional agencies like the Red Cross.

Given the frequency of natural disasters and the uncertainty around climate change the world has an opportunity to rollout a global 911 service that could benefit us all.

Image credit: visualpanic. Mission 4636 diagram kindly supplied by Josh Nesbit.