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Archive for the ‘Haiti’ Category

This is a post by Jo-Ann Garnier-Lafontante. Jo-Ann and I go back a long way. We worked together on a few youth media and participation programs in the past and became friends. She and the youth that I met through her were the first people I thought of when I heard about the earthquakes in Haiti last January. It’s people like Jo-Ann and the youth she works with who are bringing Haiti back to its feet.

On January 12th at 4h53pm I was in my third-floor office at Plan Haiti, meeting with Guerdy the Human Resources Manager and talking about staff issues and projects for the New Year. Suddenly the ground seemed furious with us. I can still hear the sound of heavy concrete collapsing and people screaming. After I saw the toilet literally explode in front of us, I told Guerdy “We’re going to die.” I saw images of my family before me. I tried to call them, but I could not get through. I was terrified. My husband worked in a 6-story building and I could not reach him…

Between three violent aftershocks Guerdy and I managed to get out of the building and into the parking lot. I remember seeing several shoes my colleagues had lost in the stairs while running out of the office. I saw my other colleagues horrified, crying and trying desperately to communicate with their loved ones on their cell phones. I saw this little girl, maybe she was 12, who had come to hide in our parking lot. I had never seen her before… she smiled at me. She told me she lived in the neighborhood, that she escaped from her house and the rest of her family was still missing. She was wounded, the features of her face hidden behind dust.

Four hours later, my husband miraculously appeared in our parking lot, sweating and breathless. I had tears in my eyes when I saw him.  He told me about the things he saw on his way to Plan’s office and we started the journey home together. It was awful. We saw people either walking like zombies, screaming, crying, carrying injured people or dead bodies—or desperately looking for loved ones. When we got home, my mother, my 1-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son were in the street in front of our house…stunned and speechless. I grabbed them and held them so tight. I heard that my father and nieces were stuck downtown but they were okay. Now… what about the rest of the family, friends … we could only wonder.

I remember the funerals of my aunt and my grandmother. My father had to remove his own mother from the rubble that had been her home, after six days of digging. We had gotten my aunt out of her collapsed home after two days of digging but she died on the way to the hospital—and then her body was lost among the other bodies and we never found her again.

I remember seeing so many people around Port-au-Prince queuing for burial ceremonies for their loved ones. I thought Haiti had died.

On the last day of 2010, I sat at a meeting at Plan’s new office in Port-au-Prince. It was for the children’s and youth event we are planning for the anniversary of the earthquake. I was amazed at the change since last January. At the meeting we talked about celebrating life. We talked about a new beginning for Haiti and how the engagement of children and youth is essential to its success. I felt our excitement. I feel so proud to be a part of this.

According to what I have witnessed over the past year, Haiti’s promising future is guaranteed because of the potential inside its children and youth. After the earthquake, I saw how young people were so keen and motivated to support their peers. Now I see them mobilizing again to raise awareness about cholera and saving lives.

The earthquake devastated Haiti, but it also provided a chance for this country to be reborn. Children and youth immediately understood their role in this reshaping—they played a key part in the emergency response and they have told us from the beginning that they are ready to do whatever it takes to help reconstruct their country. We adults—and especially the decision makers among us—should listen to their insights and follow in their footsteps and do whatever it takes to fulfill our responsibilities to this country. In the near future, I think there should be a group of young advisors standing behind the President and each Minister.

Today I weep for my aunt, Gagaye (this is how we called her), and my grandmother, Nini, and so many other family members and friends whom I am missing, and also for those I did not know and who left us too soon. But today I also celebrate life. I celebrate the strength I see in the communities where Plan works. I understand the wise person who said “a country never dies…” I now know this is true more than ever because a country like Haiti can count on its children and youth to keep it alive.

Jo-Ann narrates the video below about the work she’s been involved in over the past year. It’s worth a look.

Related posts on Wait… What?

Haiti through our eyes – an uplifting series of photos by Haitian youth

Children and young people’s vision for a new Haiti – 1000 youth input into Haiti’s reconstruction plan

Children in Emergencies: Applying what we already know to the crisis in Haiti – lessons learned from past disasters

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When people tell their own stories and take photos of themselves, the results are quite different from when outsiders bring in their stereotypes and their agendas.

I love love love this photo series by youth in Croix des Bouquets and Jacmel.

In October, 2010, Plan commissioned Natasha Fillion, a Canadian photojournalist based in Port-au-Prince, to train and work with 22 teenagers to document their own lives in their own home, neighborhoods and schools. The youth, ages 14-19, got a crash course in photography and were given a digital camera and sent out ‘on assignment’ in their communities. Their brief was to cover topics such as home life, education, leisure, friends, everyday Haiti, and anything about which they were passionate. The photos were taken over a period of 2 weeks.

Fillion commented ‘I go out and I’m covering demonstrations, violence and destruction but there’s a whole side of Haiti that the media, the whole world doesn’t get to see, and I told the students — this is your opportunity to show people what Haiti is really like. These are photos that tell the story of Haiti as a whole, not just news.’

February 3, 2011, update:

Interview with 2 of the youth photographers and Natasha Fillion.

Related posts on Wait… What?

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Report released March 29, 2010

Often adults think that children and youth don’t have the capacity to express themselves or make good decisions.  I’ve been working with kids for a long time and I wholeheartedly disagree.  It makes me cringe when I hear adults making a big fuss out of something intelligent that a child or a young person says.

I’m not amazed anymore when kids say something profound or brilliant – I’ve come to expect it.  When trusted and given a comfortable space to say what they think, children and young people tend to bring critical insights to a situation, especially when it’s one that directly impacts on them and their lives.

So when adults are designing and implementing programs, instead of assuming that they know what is best for children and youth, it’s a good idea to actually ask them and involve them.

The “Children’s Voices in the PDNA” project (implemented by Plan with support from UNICEF) did exactly that:  experienced Haitian facilitators developed a child friendly methodology to consult with 54 groups of children and youth – almost 1000 kids in total – in 9 departments in Haiti to find out what they wanted to see in the new Haiti.  The resulting document in full can be found here, and is well worth a look-through.

The consultations focused on a few broad areas:

  • the impact of the January 2010 earthquake on children’s and youth’s lives and that of their communities
  • their visions for the reconstruction and long-term development of their country
  • their views regarding their present situations and future risks they may face
  • their ideas on how they would like to participate the future development of their country.

The project aimed at not only gathering opinions and ideas from the participating children and youth to feed into the PDNA, but to help them understand the PDNA process and how it would link into the long-term reconstruction in Haiti and impact on their own lives. Children and youth were also given the space to share ideas for accountability, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms.

Participants were divided into age-based groups (5-10, 11-16 and 17-24 year olds) for the consultations, and their responses were recorded according to sex in order to ensure that gender-based information was available for future program planning.  The 4 main categories of the PDNA were included as well: social sectors, infrastructure, production sectors, and governance/security. In order to ensure a holistic approach when coming up with solutions, the root causes of vulnerability and risk were discussed.  Environmental hazards such as earthquakes, floods, landslides, and social risks like child trafficking, child protection, violence and abuse were addressed.  A summary of the children and youths priorities by age and sex is found on page 19 of the document.

Children and youth certainly had something to say.

——————–

I want a different Haiti where we, the youth, have a chance to participate with the government; we can be part of the government and of all activities in the country. In the past, youth had been completely excluded; we need a new strategy or approach to achieve this end.” Boy in age group 11-16, Croix des Bouquets

I’m sure we’ll have a better Haiti with the participation of youth and children. Then, Haiti would become a beautiful country. Haiti cannot be rebuilt without the participation of children and youth, we are Haiti’s present, we will be Haiti’s future.” Girl in age group 11-16yrs, Croix des Bouquets

After the earthquake, I have seen a deprived youth. The country had assumed a thinking mind on behalf of Haitian youth. Because in my vision, I saw there was no future for the youth. We need to make men act consciously to facilitate equal distribution of things and to help every citizen according to his needs. My advice would be to decentralize the country, think of the whole country and rebuild the country consciously. Awareness is crucial to achieve a better distribution of international aid so it can benefit those most in need.” 22 year old male, Cyvadier / South-East

First, the focus group was a very good activity; everyone was involved and conscientious. Everyone had the opportunity to express their ideas and opinions freely. About January 12, I think everyone has his or her own way to live, understand and explain this event. But, there is still confusion and fear among people. They are traumatized and desperate. Now, we must reconsider, give room for everyone, listen to every person with positive ideas in the context of the reconstruction.” 18 year old female, Department of the West

——————–

Permission for two of the participating youth to attend a March 30th Side Event called “A Haiti Fit for Children” and to participate in the March 31st Donors Conference (both held in New York City), was granted. Ironically, the youth were denied visas to enter the US.  In my last post about Haiti I asked “Will Haitian youth go missing again?” The answer is “yes.”  But at least we can hope that their voices in written form will reach the eyes and ears of decision makers and donors. I hope that they will listen.  Children under 18 make up around 50% of the population in Haiti… if they go unheard, that is a lot of missing voices.

If you are reading this blog post and you plan to launch an initiative in Haiti, I hope you also will take 15 minutes to read through the “Children and Young People’s Voices in Haiti’s Post Disaster Needs Assessment” to hear what these 1000 children and youth in Haiti have to say.

But not only that.  I hope that before doing anything on the ground in Haiti, you or someone that you are working with will directly talk with and listen to Haitian children and young people, as well as with their parents, teachers, community leaders, and others in the communities that you are hoping to help or support.

Related posts on Wait… What?

Will Haitian youth go missing again?

Children in Emergencies: Applying what we already know to the crisis in Haiti

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There are a lot of great ideas floating around about how Information and Communications Technology (ICTs) and technology in general can help to rebuild Haiti.  I hope these ideas keep coming.  I would love to see international development organizations, aid agencies and non-profits in general open up more to ideas on how technology can improve the lives of the people they are trying to support as well as facilitate coordination and program implementation.

But I also hope that the technology folks who haven’t worked in a crisis context such as that in Haiti will lend an ear to those who have experience working in past disasters and on-going development programs, human rights work, volunteer initiatives and advocacy. Those experiences shouldn’t be tossed out as old-school.  Good programs and experiences exist that can be examined, processed and built on.

I work globally, with one foot in community development and the other in ICTs, and I notice a gap between these 2 sectors, though they could really learn a lot from each other and work nicely together.

Cool technology ideas, just like cool program ideas can flop on the ground if the local culture and context are not taken into consideration, users were not involved or consulted during design and testing, the supposed ‘problem’ really wasn’t a problem at all, the proposed idea is not sustainable, a better/preferred local solution already exists, etc., etc.

Sometimes when I hear enthusiastic people sharing ideas for new applications, innovations or program ideas that they want to implement in ‘developing’ countries, I find myself thinking:  “Wow.  They have no idea what it’s like on the ground.”  I don’t want to shoot down someone’s excitement.  But I do wish that those who are not intimately familiar with their end users would slow down, think for a minute, and realize that local context is king. I wish they would remember that ultimately this is not about them and their ideas for other people. I wish they would stop being mad that abc organization won’t take that shipment of xyz technology that they want to send over, or that no one wants to implement such and such program that was so successful in such and such place.  Solutions looking for problems are not the best way to go about things, even when you have the very best of intentions.

However, non-profit organizations (large and small)  can be totally resistant to trying new tools, technologies and programs that could make a huge difference in their effectiveness, impact and quality of programming. They can be bureaucratic and slow to put new ideas to work.  They can be risk averse, afraid of failure, and resistant to innovation and new ideas.  The seemingly limitless relationships that need to be negotiated around can really slow things down.

Sometimes I see non-profits doing things they way they’ve always been done and I find myself thinking “Wow.  I wish they’d be open to trying ________.” I wish organizations would be more willing to test out new technologies and new ideas that don’t come from within their sector. I wish it were easier to make change happen.

When it comes to the Haiti earthquake response, the technology and non-profit sectors are 2 of the key players.  I’m worried that the outpouring of interest in helping will lead to a lot of wheel re-inventing.  I’m worried about local relevance and executability (if that’s even a word) of some of the ideas I am seeing.  I have concerns about the amount of projects being conceived and designed from afar.  I also see that there are new program and technology ideas out there that have the potential to make people’s lives easier if they were well integrated into the local reality, yet there are many factors that prohibit and inhibit organizations from exploring them or using them.

The technology and non-profit sectors benefit quite a lot from each other when they work together and understand each other.  It would be great to see a bigger effort to bridge the gap between these sectors.  Regardless of whether people believe NGOs and/or private enterprises and/or technologists or the Haitian government or the UN are good or bad, there are a lot of experiences that can be learned from and/or improved on from all sides.

The links below might be helpful for thinking about designing technology, ICT and programs in ‘developing’ country contexts and to help avoid known pitfalls and overcome obstacles. They can help reduce the amount of time and other resources wasted on projects that are not sustainable or impactful, or at worst are actually harmful in the short or long term to the very people that we all want to support and help.  There are certainly many more resources out there… please add ones that you find helpful in the comments section.

ICT Works and The 4 C’s of ICT Deployment

Mobiles for Development Guide by Hannah Beardon

IDEO Human Centered Design Toolkit

Changemakers and Kiwanja collaboration: SMS How To Guide

Mobile Active‘s case studies

ML4D:  Mobile learning for development’s design narratives

Ushahidi Blog: February Archives have a lot of information on the Haiti response

iRevolution: thought provoking posts on technology and crisis situations

Educational Technology Debate:  Sustaining, rather than sustainable ICT4E and Designing and sustaining a sustainable ICT4E initiative

Posts on Wait… What? that might be useful:

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

Meeting in the Middle: A good local process

It’s all part of the ICT jigsaw

I and C and then T

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Members of the "Voces" Latin American youth media network.

I’m in Nicaragua this week for a regional meeting of youth leaders from 12 Latin American countries where the organization where I work (Plan) operates.  Well, actually only 11 countries are present, since our 5 person Haitian delegation (2 adults and 3 youth) was deported immediately upon arrival. What I understand is that they were missing a special type of visa permit required by Haitians that the Consulate in the Dominican Republic should have issued and didn’t, and the Haitian youth paid the price by having their hopes dashed.

To me it feels like adding insult to injury, but I guess no one cuts anyone any slack these days.  After 3 days running around, staff at our office in Nicaragua were unable to arrange for the team to enter the country.

I’m really disappointed that the Haitian team is not here this week because it would have meant a chance to hear first hand from the youth and my Haitian colleagues about their experiences over the past few months and to learn about how they have been participating in the Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) process in Haiti.  The youth from the Latin American youth media network, “Voces” (“Voices”) here are extremely bummed as well.  One aspect of their strategy for the next few years involves working in solidarity their Haitian peers to ensure that their voices and opinions are heard in the building and negotiating of the PDNA as well as in the post-PDNA process when promises and commitments will be monitored.

Around half of the population in Haiti is under 18, yet young people were not initially given a space to input into the PDNA process, even though it will decide the framework and funding for reconstruction of their country.  In order to bring those voices into the process, Plan worked in partnership with UNICEF to consult with 54 groups of children and youth (around 1000 kids in total) across the country (West, North East, South East, Artibonite, Nippes, South, North West, Grand Anse and Central Plateau) to find out about their current situation and their plans and ideas for the future. Issues of gender, disability, vulnerability, access to services, disaster risk reduction, participation in decision making, and accountability mechanisms for the PDNA were considered in the consultations. Plan has been working in Haiti for several years and has an active local network on the ground. These consultations were a lot of work, but not impossible.  (Read more about the process here.)

But the effort to fully involve children and youth does not stop at the consultation stage.  Plan and UNICEF are currently working to ensure that the input from the children and youth will be incorporated into the upcoming donor conference in New York on March 31, 2010 where representatives from the Haitian government, international organizations and representatives from the World Bank will decide Haiti’s future.  My colleague in the US office is working right now to try to secure visas for 2 youth to attend the March 31 meeting.

Interestingly enough, much of the input from the youth consultations fits right into the categories that will be discussed in these meetings:  education, housing, telecommunications, transport, energy, boosting the effectiveness of government and macro economic recovery.  If you ask me, it would be vital for decision makers to hear it.  The most common point made by children and youth during the consultations was education and getting back to school.

Here in Nicaragua, the 40 or so youth from the “Voces” network who did make it through immigration to participate in our meeting this week have been following the Haiti situation since it began, offering solidarity and support from afar.  The group is composed of young media veterans, all part of youth networks and media groups in their home countries. They have been doing local, national and global level advocacy work for years; some for 10 years, since they were pre-teens.  They write blogs, host television and radio shows, publish newsletters, make videos, produce music, and are generally involved and powerful voices for their generation.

I really like their vision for supporting their Haitian peers’ primary efforts in getting a seat at the table and being heard by decision makers around the PDNA and post-PDNA reconstruction process in Haiti. They are planning to use their contacts in their own governments and ministries and their existing media platforms to bring the opinions and voices of their Haitian peers in “through the back door” so to speak. They want to advocate with their own country governments, youth commissions, Ministries, etc., to influence their positions so that when they interact with the Government of Haiti, they are doing it with opinions and positions of Haitian youth in mind. In this way they want to help the voices of their peers to be heard directly and indirectly on various fronts and from all sides.

On the ground in Haiti, Plan is working to find and revive all the youth media groups that were its active partners before the earthquake.  These groups have been working in their communities and at the national level through various media around themes of importance to youth.  In fact Caroline and Fritz, 2 of the youth that I have met in the past at other youth encounters are at the forefront of the children and youth participation in the PDNA process right now.  These and other groups of  young people can play a vital role in the post-disaster reconstruction process in many ways, including monitoring the gap between commitments made and commitments fulfilled.

The knowledge, motivation and spirit of the youth here at this regional encounter, are a real inspiration. I can only imagine how disappointed their peers are, back in Haiti, after all the preparation that they did to attend this week. But our regional media encounter is of  much less significance than the March 31 meeting.  How will the youth who are planning to attend that meeting feel if they are not allowed in.  Why is their voice less important in that context, less of a priority than other voices?  I’ve been in this world long enough to know the answer to that question, but it will never cease to upset me.

So here’s hoping that the 2 Haitian youth who are slated to participate in the PDNA Meeting in NYC are given a seat at the table and permission to attend the donor meeting and to enter the US.  Here’s hoping that Haitian youth and their voices will not go missing again.

Related Posts on Wait… What?

Children and young people’s vision for a new Haiti

Children in Emergencies:  Applying what we already know to the crisis in Haiti

An example of youth-led community change in Mali

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In early 2005, following the Tsunami, I collaborated with a cross-section of people at the organization where I work to put together a summary of lessons learned and some short guidelines for working with children and communities in emergencies.

All of us had been directly responsible for supporting and/or coordinating disaster response with communities, staff, local and national governments, international and national NGOs, children, youth, schools and teachers, or some combination of the above, in the countries where we lived and worked.  We discussed preparedness as well as relief and recovery phases. We talked about how child focused community development organizations, like the one where we worked, should look at children’s survival, development, participation and protection in a disaster situation and we created some internal guidelines.

Some of the most important things that stayed with me from the weeks we spent talking with each other, with peer organizations, and with our colleagues who were dealing with the 2004 Tsunami are related to the importance of child participation and protection during emergencies.  These recommendations can be applied now to the crisis in Haiti.

  • Don’t assume children or their families can’t do anything for themselves. Local coping mechanisms are often overlooked and underestimated by central governments or aid organizations, creating unnecessary dependency.  Participating and taking control of their situation can actually help people return to normal sooner. I clearly remember an example of an IDP camp where all the services (food, water) were at first centrally coordinated by the municipal government.  A manager from our organization was able to convince the government to engage camp ‘residents’ and organize children and youth into smaller groups who handled particular responsibilities. Suddenly the trash in the camp was picked up and time spent in the food line went from 2 hours to 20 minutes, tempers lowered and people relaxed a bit and got on with things.  The Children and Participation: Research, Monitoring and Evaluation with Children and Young People by Save the Children is a general guide that can help staff think through and orient participation of children and young people in emergencies.  Child-Oriented Participatory Risk Assessment and Planning (COPRAP): A Toolkit developed by the Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP) in the Philippines is another excellent resource. Both were adapted and used by Plan during the conflict in Timor Leste, for example.
  • Child protection is critical during an emergency and after. During a disaster the typical social patterns and groupings that protect children may be challenged or broken. Children can be further harmed, abused and exploited by those who take advantage of the chaos.  Unaccompanied children can be preyed on if mechanisms are not established quickly.  Personal information about children is often shared or published widely in the interest of helping find parents or relatives or find missing persons, yet it can also help unscrupulous people to identify unaccompanied children and prey on them, especially now when published on the internet.  Birth registration and restoration of lost identity and other civil registration documents are critical to halt trafficking, as is close coordination among organizations, governments, communities and local agencies/staff.  Community members and the affected population can play a strong role in protecting their children, as can older children themselves.  The Interagency Guiding Principles on Unaccompanied and Separated Children, put together by the International Committee of the Red Cross, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children UK, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and World Vision, gives an excellent overview of protection.  Further resources are available at Better Care Network’s website which has materials on separated children in emergencies, how to prevent separation through good relief and response efforts, registration, documentation and tracing, emergency care arrangements, verification and family reunification.
  • Unaccompanied children should not be given up for foreign adoption during the emergency phase. Experience in many past emergencies and conflicts has shown that this is just not the way to go.  In the emergency phase there is no way to ascertain which children are orphans with no other family at all, versus children who might be orphaned but have family somewhere who could take them in.  Taking children out of the country to feed them without a long-term, sustainable plan for them can end up being more complex than finding a way to feed and care for them in country.  Supporting removal of children from their own country during a time of upheaval can also engender a negative reaction among the affected population, who may come to see every external face that comes into the community or camp as someone coming to steal their children.  Interim and emergency care should be consistent with the long-term goal of family reunification.  More background on this can be found at the International Foster Care Association’s website.
  • Participation and protection go hand in hand. The greater the amount of knowledge and ownership that children, youth and their families and communities have, the safer they will be and the sooner they will recover. When the affected people have more input in the relief, recovery and reconstruction, efforts are more successful.  This means linking and coordinating with existing community organizations and structures, local government mechanisms, local non-governmental organizations.  Though it may appear that everything is wiped out in a major disaster, leaders will emerge and regroup.  Plan’s publication “After the Cameras have Gone:  Children in Disasters” offers some examples and insights on protection and participation in disaster situations.
  • Report ethically. The media will undoubtedly look for the ‘best’ story in the interest of raising the most funds possible for the emergency.  In media-speak, unfortunately, that often means the hardest hitting story, the most emotional story, and some journalists/media folks will go extremely far to get it.  However, journalists and agencies bringing journalists to affected communities should obviously not further harm children or take advantage of affected persons in their drive to get the best story.  Journalists should not ask children to relive traumatic experiences or to make them tell stories that upset them just to get a shot of a child crying.  The golden rule applies – how would you like it if that were you or your child?  Children or other community members may be too polite or unsure of whether they can say ‘no’ to a journalist, especially if that journalist is foreign or comes with an aid agency or entity that is linked with emergency aid.  Those working regularly with children and their families should ensure them that they can refuse to talk, they can halt an interview, or not have their picture taken. Local staff managing media visits should feel empowered to intervene on behalf of children in these cases. UNICEF’s “Child Rights and the Media” Guidelines for Journalists and Media Professionals, published by the International Federation of Journalists, gives a background and guide for ethical reporting on children in general.  These guidelines include things like striving for sensitivity when reporting on issues involving children and avoiding use of stereotypes and sensational presentation to promote journalistic material involving children, and they should apply in emergency situations as well.

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My main experience with disasters comes from working at an international development organization in El Salvador and happening to be the only senior manager who wasn’t on annual vacation when a huge earthquake struck almost exactly 9 years ago, on January 13, 2001. The rush to act was immediate, and it was a lot of learning by doing.  I got handed the responsibility by fate I suppose and didn’t do such a bad job of it, if I do say so.  At that time we were pretty unprepared; something that has certainly changed since then in the organization where I work.  We now have country level disaster plans at hand and support a lot of disaster risk reduction and preparedness work with local communities and governments.

One of the main challenges for us in responding to the Salvadoran earthquakes in 2001 was information:  lack of information, wrong information, too much information to sort through, outdated information, etc.  We spent way too much time in staff meetings and meetings with other organizations/government sharing what we had done and what we were planning to do, only to find out that everything had changed while we were sitting there, and some decisions were no longer valid.  There was no effective way to manage all the information in the constantly moving and changing circumstances.

And in 2010…?

I’m sure things have changed quite a lot in disaster work since 2001, and since 2005 when I spent about 6 weeks in India and Thailand after the Tsunami, but I would bet that information management will still be a major challenge during the relief and recovery efforts in Haiti following the January 12, 2010 earthquake, especially given the scale of the crisis and the number of agencies who are already working there or are just now arriving to set up shop.

Today’s technology should allow us a better way to manage this information.  I hope that organizations working on the ground in Haiti will take advantage of the shared and open digital information systems available to them that can be updated in various ways by various people in various locations.  The convergence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as digital mapping, crowd sourcing and crowd feeding of information, GPS, mobile phones and SMS,  geo-visualization for rapid decision making and trend spotting will be put to a massive test as the disaster response in Haiti unfolds.

In comes Ushahidi

The place where these ICT tools are converging right now into one ready to use platform is at www.haiti.ushahidi.com.  (I confess that I’m unaware of other options that offer the same or similar crisis management capacity – feel free to post other examples in the comments section). [update: for regularly updated detailed info on Ushahidi and other digital tools being used in the Haiti Crisis, visit the Ushahidi Situation Room].

According to the Ushahidi blog, work on the Haiti crisis map began about 2 hours after the massive quake struck, thanks to a global effort of people linked to Ushahidi, Frontline SMS/Frontline SMS: Medic, UN OCHA Colombia, the International Network of Crisis Mappers, and the US State Department (and probably others behind the scenes that haven’t been mentioned yet).  The system is now operational.  The in-country short code 4636 went live on January 16th.

What is Ushahidi and how does it work?

Ushahidi could be described as a mapping tool and also as a platform I suppose.  Each Ushahidi ‘instance’ is created based on the information needs of whoever is setting up the instance, and a map of a particular geographical area.  Via email, SMS, Twitter, or by filling in an on-line form, anyone can send in information to populate the map with information.  This information falls into specific topic areas that have been decided beforehand by whoever is setting up the site. (Ushahidi instances have been used to track drug stock outs, to monitor elections and human rights abuses, and in crisis situations, for example.)  In the case of Haiti, it’s deaths, emergencies, threats, responses, missing persons, etc.

The “incident reports” that people send in are uploaded onto the map (using geo-location tags) to give a visual representation of what is happening and where.  They are labeled as “verified” or “unverified”.  As data is triaged, the unverified reports are eventually verified.  Different layers of information can be viewed, and you can see an overview or zoom in for more detail on the map.  [Update:  These reports are being channeled now into Sahana’s system (read about it here) system, developed in Sri Lanka for the Asian Tsunami in 2004.]

To really understand how this works, the best thing is to just visit the site.

Crowdsourcing and Crowdfeeding

Two of the basic concepts behind Ushahidi are “crowd sourcing” and “crowd feeding”. Crowd sourcing means information is obtained from the “crowd”.  Crowd feeding means that the collected information is consolidated and fed back to that same “crowd” so that they are better able to make decisions.  People standing right there on the ground usually know what is happening right there on the ground better than people visiting periodically from centralized headquarters, and via Ushahidi, that information is pulled in from the sources on the ground in almost real-time.  Giving consolidated information back and/or responding to those who provided it completes the circle.

Trust the Public

With a large enough amount of information input, any bogus incident reports can be identified.  I won’t go into all the discussions around the validity of crowd-sourced information as it’s been a large debate, but seems to play out that yes, you can trust the information to the degree necessary to help make quick decisions in times of crisis or emergency — and this information is better than no information or information that comes too late.

In fact, in September, I participated in a meeting about geo-visualization at Google’s offices in Washington, DC (see my before lunch and after lunch posts) and heard presentations by both the American Red Cross (ARC) and the US Federal Environmental Management Association (FEMA). Both organizations talked about the need to trust citizens to report on what is happening right in front of them, and that these reports are every bit as reliable as reports by experts, and a whole lot quicker because people have mobile phones now.  Pulling in information from citizens and mapping out the situation visually can be a huge resource for those making decisions about response.

What’s needed now

What is needed now for Ushahidi in Haiti to work to its fullest potential is for people to share information about what is happening where they are.  The general public in Haiti can text a message into 4636 to submit a report giving their location and telling about their situation: missing persons, need for medical attention, supplies needed, help that has already arrived, changing priorities, etc. [Internationally use 44-76-280-2524, or report using the web form at the Ushahidi Haiti site].

Emergency Aid agencies too

Information sharing is not only something for the public.  In addition to input from the local population, it would be great if local organizations and international agencies would use Ushahidi to share information on what they are seeing as they work in and pass through different communities.  By being open and sharing this kind of information, maybe overall coordination can improve and precious time and resources won’t be wasted because of information challenges.  [Update:  Organizations on the ground can register at Sahana, and receive situation reports so that they can provide assistance.]

One aid agency can’t canvas the whole country alone, and Ushahidi offers a way to get real information from real people on the ground in near real-time. I think it would have much been easier in El Salvador in 2001 if we had the ICTs then that we have now.  I hope people and organizations take the best advantage of them in 2010, now that they are available.


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