Visual description of Ushahidi & Haiti Earthquake Crisis Mapping Visual description of Ushahidi & Haiti Earthquake Crisis Mapping Photo credit: Peter Durand / Alphachimp Studio Inc.
The Haiti earthquake: breaking new ground in the humanitarian information landscape
by Dennis King, US Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit August 2010

The Haiti earthquake ushered in a new humanitarian information environment: one with unprecedented availability of raw data, the growing usage of new information communication technology (ICT), and the emergence of three loosely-connected communities of interest centred around the US government, the United Nations and the international community and a new group (ICT Volunteers) comprised of virtually-connected academics, humanitarians, corporate foundations and ICT professionals. All three communities collected, shared and acted upon enormous amounts of digital information made available on a variety of web portals, platforms and new social networking media, such as Short Message Service (SMS) feeds, Twitter and Facebook.

Each community has slightly different missions, needs, preferences, cultures and personal networks. There is therefore never going to be one single, universally accepted website or database that contains all knowledge, serves all functions and meets the needs of all users. Some users need information for operational purposes: planning, coordinating and implementing a humanitarian response or programme. Other users want information to provide them with synthesised situational awareness or strategic analysis. Because of the variety of users and applications, critical data and information should be structured in such a way that it can be shared across communities, networks and platforms. These broadly available datasets can then be more systematically evaluated, synthesised and analysed for the purposes of coordination, gap analysis, prioritisation, strategic decision-making and the creation of a common situational awareness.

 

The US government

The Haiti earthquake marked the largest US humanitarian response to a natural disaster. President Barack Obama designated USAID as the lead agency for the US humanitarian response. As of 13 August 2010, USAID had committed over $655 million in supplies, grants and support. At the height of the disaster response, US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) dedicated approximately 22,000 personnel to Operation Unified Response Haiti, and deployed 33 ships and 130 aircraft for humanitarian transport. The US Department of State obligated $11.2 million to assist displaced people and host families and to support repatriation and resettlement programmes. Other US government agencies provided technical assistance.

During the first hours after a major natural disaster such as the Haiti earthquake, the situation is changing rapidly, communications are disrupted, access is limited and few on-the-ground assessments have been conducted. Because of its proximity to Haiti, the US was quickly able to dispatch a USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) and SOUTHCOM personnel set up US Joint Task Force Haiti to manage and coordinate logistics and to support other US government humanitarian response activities. Coordination centres were established at SOUTHCOM headquarters in Miami and at USAID and the State Department in Washington. Defense, State and USAID personnel were assigned to each other’s coordination centres to serve as liaisons and advisors in an effort to develop and implement a ‘whole of government’ approach to the response. Representatives from UN agencies and NGOs also served as liaisons in some of these coordination centres, as well as with some US government teams in Haiti. This helped to establish personal relationships, facilitate information-sharing and provide greater mutual understanding.

Another key decision was to use unclassified information whenever possible, and to use public platforms for sharing information. Much of the Defense Department’s humanitarian-relevant data and information, which in previous instances resided on classified systems inaccessible to the public, was kept unclassified and shared widely within the Haiti earthquake response. SOUTHCOM launched the All Partners Access Network (APAN), a platform originally developed by US Pacific Command, to share unclassified information and enhance collaboration and operational coordination. SOUTHCOM made password registration available to anyone on request, and within three weeks APAN had over 1,800 registered users. Imagery products, maps, photos, assessments, situation reports, common operational pictures and requests for information were all made available on APAN.

 

 

ICT and the international response to the Haiti earthquake

US government

Organisations: US Agency for International Development (USAID), US Department of Defense/US Southern Command (US SOUTHOM), US Department of State, Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency (DHS/FEMA), US Coast Guard, Department of Health and Human Services, United States Geological Survey.

Portals/platforms: All Partner Access Network (APAN), Intellipedia, Diplopedia, Civil Military Fusion Center.

 

The UN and the international community

Organisations: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Food Programme (WFP), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UNICEF, Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), Red Cross, international NGOs, World Bank, European Commission (EC).

Portals/platforms: Global Disaster Alert Coordination System (GDACS), Virtual On-Site Operations Coordination Center (VOSOCC), ReliefWeb, OneResponse, GoogleGroups, Reuters AlertNet.

ICT Volunteers

Organizations: Google, InSTEDD, Fortius One/GeoCommons, OpenStreet Map, Tufts/Harvard universities, Frontline SMS, ICT4Peace, Sahana, Thompson Reuters Foundation, Microsoft.

Portals/platforms: CrisisMappers.net, SMS 4636, Ushahidi, STAR-TIDES, Haiti Voices, ICT4Peace Inventorization Wiki, CrisisCamp Haiti, CrisisCommons Wiki, crisescomm.ning.com, blogs. 

 

ICT and the international response to the Haiti earthquake

US government

Organisations: US Agency for International Development (USAID), US Department of Defense/US Southern Command (US SOUTHOM), US Department of State, Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency (DHS/FEMA), US Coast Guard, Department of Health and Human Services, United States Geological Survey.

Portals/platforms: All Partner Access Network (APAN), Intellipedia, Diplopedia, Civil Military Fusion Center.

 

The UN and the international community

Organisations: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Food Programme (WFP), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UNICEF, Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), Red Cross, international NGOs, World Bank, European Commission (EC).

Portals/platforms: Global Disaster Alert Coordination System (GDACS), Virtual On-Site Operations Coordination Center (VOSOCC), ReliefWeb, OneResponse, GoogleGroups, Reuters AlertNet.

 

ICT Volunteers

Organizations: Google, InSTEDD, Fortius One/GeoCommons, OpenStreet Map, Tufts/Harvard universities, Frontline SMS, ICT4Peace, Sahana, Thompson Reuters Foundation, Microsoft.

Portals/platforms:

CrisisMappers.net, SMS 4636, Ushahidi, STAR-TIDES, Haiti Voices, ICT4Peace Inventorization Wiki, CrisisCamp Haiti, CrisisCommons Wiki, crisescomm.ning.com, blogs.

The United Nations and the international community

UN humanitarian agencies first began tracking the post-earthquake situation using three OCHA-managed webportals/platforms: GDACS, VOSOCC and ReliefWeb. UN Disaster Assessment Coordination (UNDAC) teams and international search and rescue teams were dispatched to Port-au-Prince, using VOSOCC to mobilise and coordinate deployment. The UNDAC team included information management and GIS personnel to provide situation reports and maps for the international humanitarian response community.

The UN also activated the Cluster System, and a new OCHA portal, OneResponse, was launched and used to store and share data, information and analysis related to each of the cluster activities. Several clusters set up GoogleGroups to facilitate information-sharing, collaboration and coordination. Information management tools such as the Joint Operations Tasking Center (JOTC) logistics form, a Who is Doing What Where (3W) database, the Multi-Cluster Rapid Assessment methodology, the Displacement Tracking Matrix, the Post Disaster Needs Assessment and Recovery Framework and the Cluster meeting calendar and directories were established to facilitate coordination and information management. The creation of new information systems and tools, however, does not necessarily ensure effective inter-organisational coordination and decision-making. In order to be effective, these systems and knowledge management tools must become integrated into the work and decision-making processes of the international humanitarian response, including donors.

ICT Volunteers

Within hours of the earthquake, a new community of virtually connected volunteers affiliated with ICT consulting companies, private corporations, open source software proponents, academic/research institutions, NGOs and the Haitian diaspora began applying new ICT applications to the earthquake response. ‘Web 2.0’ social network media were used as a new means of data collection, information-sharing and collaboration. Within days, individuals from this community, with support from the US State Department, worked with ICT companies to establish an SMS 4636 code for the free transmission of text messages to and from Haiti. Google adapted its suite of tools to support the Haiti earthquake response and helped develop a Person Finder application to help find and connect people in Haiti who could not be contacted. Microsoft and Infusion provided technical assistance to the Inter-American Development Bank in creating a Haitian Integrated Government Platform to aggregate data on humanitarian and reconstruction activities in order to track and gauge progress.

A nascent, virtual CrisisMappers network utilised an open source interactive mapping platform known as Ushahidi (Swahili for ‘witness’), to gather, extract and plot geo-referenced data on a public website. Over the course of the disaster, Ushahidi and volunteer diaspora translators received over 80,000 text messages; approximately 3,000 were used in some way during the response. Other geo-referenced data was gleaned from Twitter, blogs, the news media and humanitarian situation reports to provide situational awareness products, including maps. The US Coast Guard, the 22nd US Marine Expeditionary Unit and other first responders used these social media platforms to support their emergency assistance operations. Individuals from the US government, the UN and some NGOs were also connected to this network.

This new community needs to be recognised as a new player in the humanitarian information environment. To be most effective, it needs to work with established international humanitarian actors and follow their codes of conduct and information management best practices and principles. One potential problem is that SMS ‘crowdsourcing’ could become a tidal wave of unverified reports and requests for assistance from individuals with smartphones. Requests and pleas for assistance might be exaggerated or might include misinformation, and could overwhelm the system and divert responses from identified emergency needs that have been objectively assessed by national and international teams. This nascent ICT community is also dependent on volunteerism and pro-bono resourcing, which does not ensure its sustainability or its integration with the host country and the international humanitarian system. Members of this community recognise these issues and are working to address them.

 

Other information management lessons learned from Haiti

There is one lesson learned that is constantly repeated: we don’t learn from previous experience, nor do we institutionalise best practices. Here are some information lessons learned/best practices that bear reiterating.

  • Store and back up essential baseline geospatial datasets so that they can be used immediately once a disaster occurs. Likewise, store and maintain geo-referenced datasets that are collected during the immediate response/relief phase of a disaster, so that they can be used for planning and analysis during the subsequent reconstruction and recovery phases.
  • Introduce and provide training in new ICT tools and information systems in advance of emergencies, so that these technologies can be utilised fully and effectively when a disaster occurs. Tools and technologies that are inter-operable, non-proprietary, no/low-cost, self-contained, easy to access and easy to use are the most effective.
  • Make critical data and information sharable with the host government, civil society and affected populations (in local languages) in order to strengthen host country capacities, leverage local expertise, gain their input, involve them in coordination and empower them.
  • The international humanitarian community should engage with the private sector and academic institutions in order to keep up with the latest technology innovations and new management practices. These two communities are increasingly donating resources, in the form of funds, equipment and volunteers, to humanitarian response efforts.
  • With so much information coming in from different sources, it is critical that this data includes essential meta-data (source, date-stamp, geo-reference) and adheres to the Principles of Humanitarian Information Management, i.e. accessibility, accountability, impartiality, inclusiveness, interoperability, relevance, sensitivity, sustainability, timeliness and verifiability.[1]
  • Simply making enormous amounts of data and information available and introducing new technologies is not enough to ensure efficient coordination and effective decision-making. Strong management, proper resourcing, advanced training and recognised standards and policies are necessary to take full advantage of data and information for strategic analysis and operational applications.

 


[1] Global Symposium +5: Information for Humanitarian Action, 22–26 October 2007, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Geneva, Switzerland. See http://www.reliefweb.int/symposium.

 

 

 

 

 

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