Hi, please

How can an SMS get help for a trapped person in Haiti?

Shorty after the earthquake, Ushahidi launched a new online mapping platform to assist the humanitarian relief efforts in Haiti. The idea sounds simple: people can send a text message to an indicated short number to communicate their needs and request help. But how does this system work? Even in New York, it wouldn’t be easy to set a rescue operation in motion by a simple SMS. Effective coordination between the different emergency services, like the ambulance association and the police and fire departments, requires excellent information exchange. However, communication often collapses in the wake of natural disasters, creating situations characterized by chaos and lack of information. How do people get in touch with each other? And how do they know which number to call?

In my next travel-blog, I will explore the complex interaction chain between the people that text for help and the diverse Ushahidi volunteers- either those based in New York or Port-au-Prince. Who is involved? How does the communication system work? In addition, I will analyze how the received information is verified and how actions are coordinated with the relief agencies. What happens if no geographic coordinates are available, or if the place in question is a slum where there are no official maps? When even experienced international humanitarian agencies face major difficulties in organizing effectively help, how does Ushahidi manage?

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  1. ElzbthMllr 09:40, Feb 4th, 10

    This is interesting because it’s based sort of on the concept of geotagging (which is what my question has to do with). I feel almost like your question is the flip side to my travalogue. In mine, I’m looking at the privacy implications of being able to find someone due to mobile technology, and I think that in your post you may notice that there are enormous benefits to this kind of online mapping platform. I think you’ll find that whatever locatino you’re looking at (New York vs. Haiti) you’ll find that the system works differently. It will be interesting to find out if there are any official government statements on using things like Twitter, SMS, etc to help out during emergencies. I wonder what 9/11 would have been like had there been Twitter…

    Also I think this brings up a question of access. Mobile technology is growing at such a fast rate and it’s often times the primary way in which people in countries (especially poorer countries) tend to access the internet. It also has implications for the larger infrastructure in a country, for example, would a country that doesn’t have a great emergency response system be more or less likely to be able to respond to an SMS? Very interesting…

  2. HoniehLayla 11:30, Feb 4th, 10


    I was thinking of this question as well for your travelogue. Last night when I arrived at my apartment I was in a complete black out. All I had handy was a lighter and my iPhone (which barely had any battery let) to make my way up the 6 flights of stairs to get candles and assist others stranded in my building. My only other option was to get into the garage to charge up my mobile, but maneuvering my way in the dark was not only dangerous, but difficult….We barely had signal to call anyone… So I think back to the tragedy in Haiti, by far nothing close to my 2 hours of agitation yesterday, and I wonder…. how many of those people have functioning cell phones. Do they have cell towers that are stable to relay the signal? In order to have an SMS program that could provide such information there would have be an outside relief effort monitoring and transmitting this info to relief operations. Running an SMS program takes alot of time and effort, especially if their is location tagging involved….I only question this because, in most tragedies, technology is not most people rely on, but their own human instincts to survive….

    I am really interested in what you gather up! :)

  3. mushon 10:20, Feb 6th, 10

    I like the posing of these two travelogues one against the other, we might throw the Gawker Stalker into the mix too. Nadine, I think you layed out the questions well. Let me know if you need an introduction with some o the geeks working with Ushahidi on crisis mapping in Haiti.