UN: Mobile tech, Web services to aid in disaster relief

Technology will play a greater role in humanitarian aid missions, according to a UN study

Traditional helpers in disaster relief, such as the U.N. and world governments, provided aid after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti in January 2010, leveled Port-au-Prince, claimed 230,000 lives and caused US$14 billion in damages.

The technology space also played a role in humanitarian efforts as Haitians buried under rubble sent text messages with their locations and open-source mapping communities documented the island. To further research technology's role in disaster relief, the United Nations Foundation and it partners commissioned a study from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) on the topic.

"Our job is to design an interface between the U.N. and volunteer technology communities as well as citizens from affected nations," said John Crowley, a research fellow at the HHI and the report's lead author. "We are really at the beginning stages. We need to start this conversation now. What we saw in Haiti will happen again."

While the final study is due out in March, the report's initial findings were released last week to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the earthquake. These early results indicate that mobile technology, the open-source community and Web services each have roles in future humanitarian relief missions.

Relief workers arrived in Haiti without access to data on the country, such as maps, since that information was buried under rubble, Crowley said. Workers had to reconstruct this data while simultaneously dealing with the crisis, he said. They were also given the task of incorporating new data feeds, like text messages, into their work.

Open Street Map, an open-source world map, used old maps and satellite images to construct new maps. The organization, a volunteer group of map enthusiasts, refreshed its maps every minute to address the amount of data being added, Crowley said.

Map Action, a volunteer organization of mapping professionals that is partnered with the U.N., also created new maps using GPS and satellite technology.

These efforts took Haiti "from one of the most poorly mapped countries to one that had routing tools," said Crowley.

To better aid relief efforts, Crowley suggested that the open-source groups place their volunteers on a rotating schedule. This would allow them to better balance their volunteer work with their professional and home lives.

"I wouldn't want anyone getting divorced over relief work," said Crowley.

Despite Haiti's reputation of being impoverished, clusters of advanced technology users do exist, he said.

"Our assumptions about what technology they use needs to be questioned. Yes, it is low but there are pockets that are incredible."

The country's mobile network functioned after the earthquake and people used it to send text messages and create Twitter posts.

Members of the Haitian diaspora were used to translate the most critical messages from Creole to English, Crowley said. Workers then determined which could be acted on and passed along the information to the organizations that were helping in the relief effort.

Integrating these new data fields with the traditional humanitarian groups proved challenging since aid organizations are not set up to incorporate these feeds.

"We've heard repeatedly that there is no template for capturing data," Crowley said. "We're seeing more and more of a demand for data in a structured format."

Web services' ability to process information in near-real time makes them the preferred data organization tool since standard documents can take too long to compose, Crowley said. He acknowledged that Web services also have latency issues, but "the Web cuts back on that delay."

"Without Web services it is very difficult to make decisions in real time," he said.

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