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New Tech Tools Help Haiti Quake Relief

Thu, 01/21/2010 - 6:56am
Frank Bajak, AP Technology Writer

Hundreds of tech volunteers spurred to action by Haiti's killer quake are adding a new dimension to disaster relief, developing new tools and services for first responders and the public in an unprecedented effort.

"It really is amazing the change in the way crisis response can be done now," said Noel Dickover, a Washington, D.C.-based organizer of the CrisisCamp tech volunteer movement, which is central to the Haiti effort.

"Developers, crisis mappers and even Internet-savvy folks can actually make a difference." Volunteers have built and refined software for tracking missing people, mapping the disaster area and enabling urgent cell phone text messaging. Organizations including the International Red Cross, the United Nations, the World Bank and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency have put the systems to use.

Tim Schwartz, a 28-year-old artist and programmer in San Diego, feared upon learning of the disaster that, with an array of social-networking sites active, crucial information about Haitian quake victims would "go everywhere on the Internet and it would be very hard to actually find people — and get back to their loved ones," he said. So Schwartz quickly e-mailed "all the developers I'd ever worked with."

In a few hours, he and 10 others had built www.haitianquake.com, an online lost-and-found to help Haitians in and out of the country locate missing relatives.

The database, which anyone can update, was online less than 24 hours after the quake struck, with more than 6,000 entries because Schwartz and his colleagues wrote a "scraper" that gathered data from a Red Cross site.

The New York Times, Miami Herald, CNN and others launched similar efforts. And two days later, Google had a similar tool running, PersonFinder, that the State Department promoted on its own Web site and Twitter. PersonFinder grew out of missing-persons technology developed after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005.

Christopher Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Center for Future Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, advocated online for consolidating all such tools into the Google version so the information wouldn't be stuck in competing projects.

He considers PersonFinder, which can be embedded in any Web site and as of Tuesday had more than 32,000 records, a triumph because it "greatly increases the chances that Haitians in Haiti and abroad will be able to find each other."

Schwartz agreed and folded his database into PersonFinder, which he thinks will become "THE application for missing people for this disaster and all disasters in the future."

The site has received several hundred thousand visits, said Google spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo. She had no data on how many people had found loved ones using the tool.

Another volunteer project forged in the quake's aftermath is a cell phone text-messaging system that has helped the U.N., Red Cross and other relief groups dispatch rescuers, food and water. Haitians needing help can send free text messages from phones on the nation's Digicel and Comcel networks to the number 4636.

"At least 20 people so far have been able to use this program to tell their families in the U.S. that they're OK," said Katie Stanton, a former Google employee working in the State Department's Office of Innovation.

The text messages are translated, categorized and "geotagged" by volunteers including Haitian-American members of the New York City-based Service Employees International Union. The service is being promoted on Haitian radio stations and the service has handled more than 1,000 messages since it began Saturday, said Josh Nesbit, a co-creator. He put together a similar system for hospitals in Malawi, Africa, while at Stanford University.

In another collaborative effort, the OpenStreetMap "crisis mapping" project, volunteers layer up-to-the-minute data (such as the location of new field hospitals and downed bridges) onto post-quake satellite imagery that companies including GeoEye and DigitalGlobe have made freely available. The digital cartography — informed by everything from Twitter feeds to eyewitness reports — has helped aid workers speed food, water and medicine to where it's needed most.

Haitian Hurricane related sites on the Net include: Google's service: http://haiticrisis.appspot.com CrisisCamps: http://bit.ly/5OSSAL Mapping of text messages: http://haiti.ushahidi.com/main OpenStreetMap: http://bit.ly/67MDM9 U.S. State Department: http://tinyurl.com/y9pc77p A Haiti disaster response portal: http://haiti.sahanafoundation.org

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