#HaitiTech: Lessons for the Future

I was over at the State Department yesterday for a series of conversations on the role technology played in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. DipNote has a writeup of the day's events, but I wanted to highlight the first panel of the day, which Katie Stanton rounded up here

Much has been made of the way text messaging saved lives in Haiti after the quake. In her speech on Internet Freedom, Hillary Clinton closed with a story about one woman who was pulled from the rubble after texting for help. But the actual process that sprang up to make all of this work was intricate, incredible, and frankly, highly improbable. 

It began just hours after the earthquake, when a group of Tufts graduate students (Roz Sewell spoke on the panel, and pointed to Patrick Meier as a driving force) used their connections in government, in the non-profit world, and in the Haitian diaspora to build a system that worked something like this: Haitians could send a text message to a free shortcode-- 4346-- and their message would be immediately added to a database, where it would be translated from Creole to English, and then sent back to the operations center at Tufts (so proud of my alma mater). The group of volunteers there would decide whether the texted request was actionable, and if it was, they would forward the request on to the people on the ground who could take action.  Through this whole loop, a message could move in a matter of minutes.

I mean, amazing, right? But so improbable, really. And entirely dependent on the initiative of a few creative, inspired students. Clearly, this should be institutionalized for the future, so that the next time a disaster strikes, there is an organization or government body with the clear task of making something like this happen.  Even then, it's hard to know whether it could work in a disaster that-- for lack of a better way of saying it-- got less press.

The Tufts folks have started an independent, academic review of their work, which will hopefully yield a clear picture of what they did right, what they could have done better, and what we should learn and mimic for future disasters. They're also transitioning the capabilities and resources of their "4346" service to a new, Haitian government-run, citizen text hotline. Both good ideas. Hopefully, we'll be ready to respond to the next disaster in an effective and timely manner.  And hopfully, we can help Haitians get back on their feet, empower their own government, and rebuild their country.