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Crowdsourcing the Haiti relief: one year later

January 12, 2011

It’s hard to look back on the Haitian earthquake without being overwhelmed by the destruction and tremendous loss of human life. The standing wreckage in Port-au-Prince marks just how much recovery work still remains.


At the same time, we continue to be inspired by the collaboration in response to the tragedy. It demonstrates how a rapidly deployed workforce of far-flung volunteers changes the nature of emergency relief efforts.

After the earthquake, aid workers flooded the capital, but lacked information about who needed help, where they were, and what type of help they needed. FrontLineSMS:Medic and the U.S. Department of State worked with Haitian telecom companies to set up an SMS short code, 4636, allowing Haitians to submit real-time reports. This text message method used less bandwidth than the two-way audio, which caused system outages on the country’s cell networks. The text messages that came in were in Kréyol and the aid agencies were unable to translate the messages fast enough.

CrowdFlower provided the infrastructure to route SMS texts to thousands of Haitians (both in-country and around the world), found in part by Samasource. These Haitians translated texts from Port-au-Prince in real time and categorized the victims’ issues, allowing the agencies to direct specialists to the people who needed specific services: e.g., getting potable water to thirsty people, routing doctors to injured people. Agencies could also see hotspots, maps were created through Ushahadi — an open-source platform that allows people or organizations to collect and visualize information.

This crowdsourced innovation enabled relief teams to react with exactness and agility that would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago.

Mission 4636 (as this collaboration has come to be known) processed 100,000 SMS messages in total, processing 5,000 SMS messages in one hour at peak volume. The average response time to translate, map/geocode and categorize a message did not exceed 2 minutes. The maps generated by Ushahidi were used by numerous organizations, including the Red Cross, Plan International, charity:water, U.S. State Department, AIDG, USAID, FEMA, and the World Food Program.

And two major disasters in the subsequent months would demonstrate the power of human collaboration on a massive scale.

After an oil spill struck the Gulf of Mexico, CrisisCommons created Oil Reporter, an app that gives anyone with an iPhone or an Android a real-time way to document and geotag oil that needs to be cleaned up. And Pakreport used the Ushahadi platform and translators through CrowdFlower to geolocate and translate SMS reports from the ground in response to the floods in Pakistan.

Though we cannot predict when the next disaster will occur, we can shape how well we respond to it. The ongoing work of organizations like Ushahidi will be critical to these relief efforts.

If you have even a few dollars to spare, please click here to help support their good work.


Ryan Ferrier