The energy in the labyrinthine halls of the Fletcher School basement pulses like a heartbeat within the glow of institutional lighting. Workers pace from one room to another, dodging the computer boxes and the half-eaten dinners strewn about. This is the nerve center of the Ushahidi Haiti relief effort, where seemingly random information from the disaster zone is translated into something that aid workers can use on the ground. Patrick Meier is multitasking on a Mac while preparing for an interview with documentary filmmakers and responding to ten different questions at once.
Meier is a PhD student at Fletcher and is the Director of Crisis Mapping and Strategic Partnerships at Ushahidi, an effort that provides an interactive online platform to map out information and streamline relief. Ushahidi, Kiswahili for ‘witness’, is the name of a website created in response to the 2007 Kenyon presidential election controversy. Initially, the site gathered information via text-message and email to chart violence in the country. Now, the software is available to use in response to other major crises, including natural disasters. Ushahidi has enhanced the usefullness of satellite imagery by embedding news taken from Twitter, Facebook, email, and SMS feeds from people on the ground in Haiti.
The initial installation of the Ushahidi platform went up around 8 pm on the night of the disaster. That night, Meier set to work, inputting information that he collected from online sources that were connected to organizations on the ground. By Wednesday morning, it became clear that Meier wouldn’t be able to handle the incoming feeds on his own.
The effort has since been transferred to the basement of the Fletcher School, windowless nooks filled with Macs, maps, and fractions of pizzas. The Fletcher campus ‘Situation Room’ handles about 50% of incoming information nearly 24 hours a day. The other 50% is handled by the Ushahidi team and volunteers from around the world, including Fletcher alumni in situation rooms in Washington DC, Geneva, and London.
“The past ten days have literally revolutionized humanitarian aid,” Meier said in reference to the innovative use of a technique called crowdsourcing to streamline the aid effort.
Crowdsourcing refers to a practice of outsourcing tasks generally appointed to employees of an organization to a crowd through an open call. In this case, the process utilizes the infrastructure of social networking sites and takes advantage of the ease and accessibility of text messaging and email.
“Thanks to this crowdsourcing effort, the actor best placed to respond to a particular event will do so,” Meier explained.
The Ushahidi team at the Fletcher School has reached out to Tufts undergraduate volunteers, as well as members of the Haitian community in the area. The team is working with partners at Lesley University to create 10-minute online training videos, which would allow anyone to join in the crisis mapping effort. He marvels at the opportunity Ushahidi has provided to synthesize an intimate connection with the people still working on the ground in Haiti.
“Several days ago, it was just before midnight and it was snowing outside my window. We were on Skype live with a team that helps to coordinate the search and rescue operations on the ground in Haiti. They were on the tarmac at the airport down there. They required the GPS coordinates of seven very obscure locations in order to coordinate search and rescue to identify potential survivors by 6 am the next morning,” Meier began. Luckily, Anna Schulz (another Fletcher PhD) was able to find the seven coordinates.
With calls coming in from big-name organizations like the US Coast Guard, FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, the White House Liaison, and the Red Cross, it’s clear that Ushahidi is known for providing the most precise information and GPS locations. This case was no different, and Meier set out to find the exact coordinates of the seven locations.
Around 1 am, they hit a snag –— one of the seven locations was nearly impossible to find. The team had only a name, “Au Bon Prix,” a bookstore in Port-au-Prince. A volunteer suggested posting a call for the location on Twitter.
“We got a tweet back from a stranger, a poster we’d never heard of before,” Meier continued.
The poster provided the name and phone number of a former employee of the bookstore, now living in New York. At 2 am, with nothing left to lose, Meier and his colleague called the number and managed to obtain the exact location and coordinates of the bookstore. They sent the information to the search and rescue team, who were then able to go and find survivors trapped inside the building.
“These are the kind of things that have continued to happen over the past ten days,” Meier said
This miraculous success Meir describes embodies the very essence of the Ushahidi movement: the ability to save countless lives from, miles and miles away, within the confined walls of a cluttered Fletcher School basement..