Volunteer−driven Ushahidi Web platform contributes to relief efforts in Haiti
Published: Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 03:02
When Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy student Patrick Meier first heard about the earthquake in Haiti, he didn't waste time.
"I immediately called my tech team and said we needed to roll ASAP," he said.
But Meier wasn't headed out on the next flight to Port−Au−Prince. Instead, he was putting together a powerful tool for disaster relief that could be useful from any part of the world — including the basement of the Fletcher School.
That tool is Ushahidi.com, a Web platform — originally created during a political crisis in Kenya — that can be customized for various purposes and is used to map GPS coordinates for workers on the ground. Having worked with Ushahidi since its inception, Meier knew that the ability to map areas of critical need could be important for Haiti.
Using sources like news reports, text messages, phone calls and Twitter.com "tweets," volunteers use Ushahidi to map and categorize areas of critical need so that relief workers on the ground can mobilize and provide help. The sheer number of reports coming in meant that Meier had to take action quickly.
"Ushahidi doesn't tend to take the lead in deployments," Meier said. "We're more like a tech group than a humanitarian organization. Within 24 hours it was clear I couldn't keep up with the tweets, so I sent an e−mail to the Fletcher listserv, and people really rallied … We continued to scale. Not only did we have to monitor and map, but we also had to take people and train them. That was really challenging, trying to keep this operational situation room up and running while training hundreds of people."
Since that time, the basement of the Cabot Intercultural Center has been occupied by full−time volunteers mapping the GPS coordinates of the needs of Haitians located thousands of miles away. Although initially mostly Fletcher students managed Ushahidi, undergraduates and community members have been integrated to keep up with demands.
Seniors Sabina Carlson and Helaina Stein are two undergraduates who have taken an active role in Ushahidi. They had both already been involved in health and development projects in Haiti after co−founding the organization RESPE: Haiti, which is run through the Institute for Global Leadership. With such strong connections to Haiti, they felt compelled to get involved.
"There's only so much money and fundraisers, but this was a way that I could devote my time to real−time relief work," Stein said. "It's really revolutionary that all you need is a computer and you can help aid agencies get help where it's needed."
Knowing that there was a way to be useful from afar was important for Carlson.
"There was this disconnect because we couldn't be there, we couldn't see anything," Carlson said. "You want to go and help, but realistically, the people they need on the ground are not undergrads running a health project. You know your place … but there's a gap between people you care about going through pain and the fact you can't be there. It's a frustrating and painful gap."
When she heard about Ushahidi, Carlson knew that she could help close that gap.
"[Ushahidi] is a way to be helpful to this community that I love so much. I can help out from a distance," she said. "Some people shied away because it was too hard, but that was exactly what I needed; just to be able to put myself with this incredibly innovative organization and tool. The more I heard about what they were doing, the more I was blown away."
As of press time, Ushahidi has mapped more than 2,900 reports in Haiti. Meier said that these efforts have been utilized by a wide variety of organizations such as the U.S. Marine Corps, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and have garnered plenty of press and recognition from government officials.
"We've put out information and humanitarian organizations have contacted us, because within a few hours, we had the most comprehensive information, so they are tracking the map," Meier said.
But because those on the ground are busy responding to so many reports, feedback for Ushahidi is limited.
"They don't have time to let us know," Meier said. "A military official said, ‘Your site is saving hundreds of lives, and I wish I could document to you every single example.'"
That impact has been a powerful driver for those working in the Fletcher headquarters, but the lack of feedback also can take its toll.
"It's been one of the most emotionally difficult things for me to do, and speaking with many of the volunteers, it's really difficult," Meier said. "[For example], we get a text about a baby, you map it, you get the U.S. Marine Corps involved, but you don't have closure. Is the baby still OK? I don't know. You have an intimate immediate connection, because you literally get the text of someone on the ground."
Stein said that reading personal texts, rather than reading news reports, has made the situation in Haiti personal.
"It's challenging to read messages that are really painful," she said.
Only a few days into the Ushahidi project, a FEMA task force member suggested to Meier that he look into counseling services.
"When I realized how traumatic this was for myself and everyone else involved, there was a moment where I was like, ‘What have I done?'" he said. "We have these amazing undergrads and volunteers. Are we really cut out for this? This guilt has also been there, so I've been really proactive about counseling and getting a therapist. We have group meetings to talk about emotions and a therapist on call. It's something that needs to be addressed, and people need to know it's not easy."
Over time, most of the reports being mapped by Ushahidi have transitioned from life−threatening situations to requests for food, water and supplies. Nevertheless, the organization's commitment to maintaining its service means they will need even more volunteers.