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Crowdsourcing Crisis Response

Crowdsourcing Crisis ResponseLed by The Fletcher School's Patrick Meier, Tufts became a hub for online crisis mapping hours after Haiti's destructive quake.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.05.10] Within minutes of hearing news of the quake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, Patrick Meier (F'12) began rallying the Tufts community in an effort to bring crisis response into the age of texts and Twitters.

Meier is director of crisis mapping and strategic partnerships for Ushahidi, an information-gathering platform that emerged in the wake of post-election violence in Kenya in 2008. The technology, known as crowdsourcing, allows users to submit eyewitness reports via text message, e-mail and social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, which is then mapped by volunteers. Such information may be useful to relief organizations such as the Red Cross and the Coast Guard in showing patterns of destruction or areas where relief should be concentrated.

ReadKate Perino (A'12) blog post about her experience as crisis mapping volunteer. 

As reports started coming in, Meier reached rallied his Fletcher School colleagues as well as Tufts undergraduates and established a round-the-clock situation room in the Cabot Intercultural Center.

"We have direct links with search and rescue (SAR), SOUTHCOM [U.S. Southern Command], the Red Cross, a White House liaison-it is all coming through right here," Meier says. Additional volunteers in locations ranging from Washington, D.C. to Geneva, Switzerland and London have been trained remotely, but 200 of the 300 people involved in the crisis mapping system are based at Tufts.

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"This effort has really put Tufts on the map for revolutionizing this technology, and it has created a great group of well-trained Ushahidi volunteers that can be brought back into action with just one email. But there is a second revolution yet to come," Meier says. "That revolution will be in changing the way we do development post-disaster, and for the first time, Haitians will be able to hold the development community fully accountable to what happens."

Meier explains, "They will be able to text in and say, 'This aid organization promised to have X number of this, we don't have it.'"

While it has been difficult for the group to get specific feedback from the various aid organizations on the ground, the team has verified their successful role in a number of cases, including locating a missing family, helping find water for an area in need and supplies for a local clinic and they have also acted as the first connection between several Haitians and their relatives. In addition, during his Feb. 1 visit to campus, Lieutenant General H. Steven Blum of the U.S. Northern Command National Guard made a special stop to the situation room to honor the team on their efforts.

Getting Involved

Among the 80 undergraduate volunteers trained over the past few weeks were Helaina Stein (A'10) and Sabina Carlson (A'10), co-founders of the Institute for Global Leadership's RESPE Haiti project, both with close connection to Boston's Haitian diaspora.

"This has been a good way to channel all my frustration," says Stein, who has been able to use her knowledge of Creole and French to translate e-mails and text messages. "It is great to know that sitting here in Boston, I can help coordinate all these moving parts."

Stein adds, "This is such revolutionary tool. It's exciting to be in the middle of it."

And volunteers such as Anna Schulz (F'12) learned how to use global positioning systems (GPS), allowing them to pinpoint the exact location of the emergency situations being reported. In one case, Schulz was able to lead SAR to the exact location of children that had been entrapped in a school building.

"[Schulz] has been able to train a few of our colleagues on the team," says Meier.

Having worked with the Haitian community both in Massachusetts and in northern Haiti for the past four years, Carlson says she is always struck by their eagerness to get involved.

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"For ages the diaspora has been frustrated and looking for ways to channel and take control of relief efforts," Carlson says. "I have worked with the diaspora during many relief efforts, such as the hurricanes, and I have never seen them react with such excitement as they did for this project."

With plans to keep their operation up and running until May 1, Meier says the true success of their efforts will be if they are able to transfer ownership to the Haitian community via the diaspora by that deadline.

In the first week of their efforts, Meier says many volunteers went with little to no sleep, and that processing the endless stream of messages, detailing death and destruction, was sometimes hard to bear. But for Meier, it has all been worth it.

"This is why we are at Tufts, and not somewhere else," he says.

Looking to volunteer? E-mail volunteer.ushahidi@gmail.com for more information.

Story by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communications.

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