Frank Bajak, AP
Hundreds of tech volunteers spurred to action by Haiti's killer quake are adding a new dimension to disaster relief, developing new tools and services for first responders and the public in an unprecedented effort. Noel Dickover, a Washington, D.C.-based organizer of the CrisisCamp tech volunteer movement, states that, “developers, crisis mappers and even internet-savvy folks can actually make a difference.”
Volunteers have built and refined software for tracking missing people, mapping the disaster area and enabling urgent cell phone text messaging. Organizations including the International Red Cross, the United Nations, the World Bank and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency have put the systems to use.
Tim Schwartz, a 28-year-old artist and programmer in San Diego, feared upon learning of the disaster that, with an array of social-networking sites active, crucial information about Haitian quake victims would go everywhere and it would be very hard to actually find people and get back to their loved ones, so Schwartz quickly e-mailed all the developers he had ever worked with.
In a few hours, he and 10 others had built www.haitianquake.com, an online lost-and-found to help Haitians in and out of the country locate missing relatives. The database, which anyone can update, was online less than 24 hours after the quake struck, with more than 6,000 entries because Schwartz and his colleagues wrote a “scraper” that gathered data from a Red Cross site.
Two days later, Google had a similar tool running, PersonFinder, that the State Department promoted on its own website and Twitter. PersonFinder grew out of missing-persons technology developed after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. Christopher Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Center for Future Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, advocated online for consolidating all such tools into the Google version so the information wouldn't be stuck in competing projects. He considers PersonFinder, which can be embedded in any website and as of Tuesday had more than 32,000 records, a triumph.
Schwartz agreed and folded his database into PersonFinder. The site has received several hundred thousand visits, said Google spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo. She had no data on how many people had found loved ones using the tool.
Another volunteer project forged in the quake's aftermath is a cell phone text-messaging system that has helped the U.N., Red Cross and other relief groups dispatch rescuers, food and water. Haitians needing help can send free text messages from phones on the nation's Digicel and Comcel networks to the number 4636.
Chief executive Eric Rasmussen of InSTEDD, a small humanitarian nonprofit that helped develop this application, said that U.N. search-and-rescue dispatchers were at that moment mobilizing to locate a woman eight months pregnant in distress with an infection who had sent an SOS message using the system.
In another collaborative effort, the OpenStreetMap crisis mapping project allows volunteers up-to-the-minute data (such as the location of new field hospitals and downed bridges) onto post-quake satellite imagery that companies including GeoEye and DigitalGlobe have made available for free. The digital cartography – carried by everything and everyone from Twitter feeds to eyewitness reports – has helped aid workers speed food, water and medicine to where it's needed most. One Colombian rescue team leader uploaded the maps to his crew's portable GPS units before the team arrived on the scene last week, developers said.
Internet social networks have helped volunteers organize intense work sessions. CrisisCamp drew some 400 people in six cities including Washington, London and Mountain View, Calif., over the weekend to meet-ups where they devised, built and helped refine tools. Among them: a basic Creole-English dictionary for the iPhone that was delivered to Apple on Monday night for its approval. More CrisisCamps are planned this weekend in Northern California, Miami, Atlanta, Washington, Atlanta, Brooklyn, N.Y., Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles.