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The Importance of the Web to Help Disaster Relief in Haiti

Web Foundation · January 17, 2010

The days following the earthquake in Haiti have shown just how vital — and often too scarce — reliable information is.  Aid organizations and government agencies need to know what’s happening on the ground so they can effectively allocate their resources.  These organizations and agencies must be able to share information in order to effectively coordinate relief efforts with one another.  Victims need to connect with loved ones and access support services in order to relocate to safety, find food and water, and get medical attention.  People around the world need to know what they can do to help.

Many wonderful Web services have been leveraged to address the Haiti disaster. I’ve listed some below which are having a measurable impact (please add more!). What is clear is that the Web is becoming an incredibly powerful tool to help minimize the suffering that results from situations like this. Flickr, YouTube, CNN’s iReport, and Twitter give a voice to those on the ground and in turn help to raise global awareness. Ushahidi , Sahana, and Openstreetmap use crowd-sourced contributions to aggregate and disseminate real-time information to organizations involved in relief efforts. This data can be matched with updated aerial views from GeoEye on Google Earth to provide up-to-date visual intelligence. Red Cross, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and many others use their websites to mobilize global giving and volunteerism. A vast network of blogs, online media channels, and high-traffic websites (like Craigslist, Huffington Post, Global Giving and Facebook’s Disaster Relief page) connect people to relevant resources. Google Groups/Docs, Skype, and wikis are adopted as turnkey solutions that facilitate broad, real-time collaboration and organization among relief groups large and small. Google People Finder and Family News Network of the ICRC help loved ones reunite or report missing persons. All of this translates to a much broader, more integrated, and less redundant response that more effectively matches support to the needs of the victims.

As Gordon Brown said in a recent TED talk, “I think what’s new is that we now have the capacity to communicate instantaneously across frontiers right across the world. We now have the capacity to find common ground with people we will never meet but who we will meet through the Internet and through all the modern means of communication, that we now have the capacity to organize and take collective action together to deal with the problem or an injustice that we want to deal with, and I believe that this makes this a unique age in human history, and it is the start of what I would call the creation of a truly global society.”

Although there is a great deal being done through the Web, there is so much more value that could be derived from it if we continue to work on several fronts:

1. Governments must work to put all public data available on the open Web, and in machine-readable formats. This is starting to happen in the UK, US, Australia and elsewhere. The benefit will be that organizations involved in relief efforts will be able to access detailed information about the area’s existing infrastructure and demographics before having to respond, and to share and merge data from the many diverse organizations involved during a response to a disaster;

2. Tools like VoiceXML must be developed further and adopted, so that Web services become usable by the billions who have access to simple mobile phones but are unable to use the Web because of barriers like illiteracy; and,

3. NGOs and governments must come together with the technical community to learn about the available Web tools, and to agree on standards such as is happening at the W3C Emergency Information Interoperability Framework Incubator Group

Taking these steps will not stop these kinds of disasters from occurring, but they could greatly improve humanity’s ability to prepare for and respond to them and therefore minimize the amount of suffering.

I invite readers to cite other Websites and tools not mentioned in this article, share stories about how you have seen the Web having an impact in the relief effort going on in Haiti, and what else you feel could be accomplished with the Web in responding to future disasters.

Please also consider donating to the charities active in Haiti if you haven’t already.

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