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Ushahidi: Tracking Haiti's crisis

Student volunteers in Boston are providing an invaluable stream of data to relief workers on the ground in the quake-hit Caribbean nation.

Last modified: 20 Jan 2010 16:38
Photos courtesy of Ushahidi

It's now more than a week since the Caribbean nation of Haiti was rocked by a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake, but the situation on the ground remains unstable, with people still being pulled from the rubble and the death toll continuing to rise.

With landlines in the country badly damaged, and ground transportation a significant problem, relief workers pouring into the country have had to turn to non-traditional means to try to get information from - and to - survivors of the quake.

Ushahidi, an open-source crisis-reporting platform first developed two years ago to track post-election violence in Kenya, has provided one of those non-traditional data streams, offering "near-real time disaster response" data to everyone from the Red Cross, to the United Nations, Charity: Water, the Clinton Foundation, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) and State Department, and more.

Their deployment of the software to track the crisis in Haiti following last week's quake has drawn a huge response - both from the emergency aid community in need of the data they provide, as well as from volunteers looking to get involved in the project and help verify information coming in.

“We've set up a situation room here at the Fletcher School at Tufts University - it’s a 24/7 operation," Patrick Meier, director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi and a PhD candidate at the Boston, Massachusetts school, tells me.

“What we're doing ... is a little different. [We're] monitoring tweets, Facebook, getting emails from United Nations and other contacts in Haiti, geo-tagging and providing that information in near-real time.

“We’ve expanded that operation quite a bit [recently] with more tweets, as well as blogs, other online news resources, [and we've] set up an email address. [We're] also working very closely with the International Network of Crises Mappers (CM*Net),  a group of 500 members who are very active on Haiti.

“We're [also] getting a lot of information directly from search and rescue teams and providing up to date info for organisations like Fema, the Red Cross, the US state department and so on.”

In addition to the volunteers working in shifts out of a university dorm room in Boston, Meier says Fletcher alumni have set-up a "situation room" in Washington, DC, where they are helping monitor one of the new developments of the project - a free SMS number for anyone in need of help in Haiti.

“One of the most important things we need to get out to the world is there's this SMS number - 4636 - for anyone in Haiti. We're on standby.

“All these text messages get translated - they are usually in Creole. In 10 minutes, we get that in English, and as I mentioned, we are able to then map it.”

Meier says there are also Ushahidi teams in Kenya and Uganda working to track down and verify new data out of Haiti, while a university in Geneva, Switzerland, is due to set up another situation room.

In Boston, meanwhile, the team has reached out to MIT, Harvard and other local institutions, seeking volunteers to help them maintian the momentum they've had going this past week.

But with all the time and energy these volunteers have put in, has the project been a success?

"We have been collecting a number of success stories. One of the very first was a report that went up through Ushahidi - an orphanage that was desperately running out of water. Soon after, we had someone report they had dispatched 20 litres of water to the orphanage. 

“Our situation room is now [also] known to be one of the go-to places for anyone who needs GPS coordinates [on the ground] on an urgent basis.

Another sign of success:

For ways to to get involved with Ushahidi's Haiti project, get started at haiti.ushahidi.com.

You can also learn more about the developing situation in Haiti from Al Jazeera.