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January 12 2012


Pew Studies the Power of Text-Based Donations After Haiti Quake

A simple text message can have a big impact. Mobile giving makes it easy to donate almost instantaneously after disaster strikes -- users authorize a mobile donation by texting a keyword to a specific short code, and the donation is then billed to the donor's mobile phone bill, eventually ending up with the nonprofit of choice.


Following the devastating Haitian earthquake of 2010 that left more than 200,000 people dead and more than 1 million Haitians homeless, mobile donations to Haiti totaled more than $43 million -- the first time mobile giving went mainstream in the United States on a large scale.

On the two-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake, the Pew Internet Project has released "Real Time Charitable Giving," a report that delves into mobile giving and donors' motivations in the U.S.

The report, a collaboration among the Pew Internet Project, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the Knight Foundation, and the mGive Foundation, aims to provide a window into the motivations, benefits, and potential pitfalls of mobile giving campaigns.

Drawn from a sample of 863 individuals who made a mobile donation to the "Text for Haiti" campaign, the survey covers why the users gave, how they learned about the mobile donation campaign, how likely they were to share information about their mobile donation, and how likely they were to remain engaged with relief efforts.

Key Findings

Many of the contributors to the Text for Haiti campaign were first-time mobile givers; 74% of the respondents said that the earthquake response was the first time they had used a mobile device for charitable giving. Many of the users went on to contribute to other relief efforts (such as the Japanese tsunami and the BP Gulf oil spill) through mobile donations, with 56% of the respondents saying they had continued to use mobile donations for other efforts.

Some of the key benefits of mobile giving are the ease of the transaction and the relatively small donation amounts, which make it an easy impulse decision; 73% of respondents donated the same day they heard about the campaign, and 50% of those users donated immediately upon hearing about it. The ease of mobile giving also encouraged the donors to spread the word about the campaign to their social groups; 43% of the surveyed mobile donors reported that they encouraged their friends and family to make mobile donations as well.

Unsurprisingly, the report found that mobile giving attracted a younger, more diverse, and more technologically savvy group of donors compared with the typical nonprofit donor. The majority of the respondents were also more familiar with the little computers in their pockets, using their phones in more ways than just texting or calling (such as taking photos, accessing the mobile web and social networking sites, sending and receiving emails, etc). Less than 40% of average U.S. mobile users use these features.

A downside to the mobile giving campaign was respondents' limited long-term engagement with relief efforts and news following their initial donations; 43% of participants reported that they were following the reconstruction efforts "not too closely," while 15% were following them "not at all." Furthermore, the impulse decision to make a mobile donation meant that there was minimal research into relief efforts before the donation, with only 14% of respondents saying they had researched where the money would go before making their mobile donation.

The spur-of-the-moment nature of mobile donations and the ease of the transaction make mobile giving an easy way to reach a large number of donors, despite the challenges.

Image courtesy of the United Nations Development Programme and used under the Creative Commons license.

August 01 2011


The Takeaway, Gas prices, Haiti - crowdsourced maps: how to get started and stories to consider

Reynolds Center :: As the ranks of journalists at news organizations shrink, one of our biggest news-gathering assets is our audience. We increasingly rely on users for tips and information via social media, and some companies are working overtime to make crowdsourcing news easier. One of the most interesting emerging uses for all that crowd sourced news is in mapping.

All kinds of individual stories can include mapped components. NPR’s “The Takeaway” set up a national gas prices map. The New York Times and WNYC asked users to share bird-watching spots. Following Haiti’s earthquake, users all over the world cobbled together a map of earthquake damage and relief sites to assist aid workers.

Continue to read Rebekah Monson, businessjournalism.org

March 24 2011


Using Technology to Aid Disaster Relief for Japan and Beyond

The March 11 earthquake in Japan triggered a flurry of concern in the Media Lab community at MIT. The natural desire to help was amplified by the fact that the disaster had hit many of our friends close to home in a very literal sense. Most messages suggested donations to support relief organizations -- a worthy cause indeed -- but there was also a more unique reaction: A call for relief technology.

It turns out that the use of digital tools in crisis situations is a concept with rich communities and plenty of solid examples. Within the Media Lab there are a handful of projects designed to assist in crisis situations and outside of the Lab there are hundreds more. Because I just started exploring the area, I want to share my initial observations along with a quick description of the projects I'm most familiar with.

Framing the Challenge

I always thought that social systems were complicated, but I will never complain again. The issues surrounding a crisis tool are almost unreal. Take a minute to think of the types of challenges that a relief technology project needs to consider up front, before even targeting a particular problem. Here are a few examples to get your brain running:

  • Limited technology access -- The primary stakeholders of a relief technology are those living in a disaster area. Maybe the area is a developing country with no digital infrastructure or a more developed country whose digital infrastructure just got annihilated. Maybe people have the Internet, maybe they just have cell phones, or maybe they really have nothing on the ground. Nothing is a given here.
  • Shifting impact windows -- What are the phases of disaster relief, how long do they last, and what changes between them? I like the general structure presented in this document [PDF]. It starts with an immediate response, which focuses on things like saving lives, cleaning up, and tending to basic human needs. This is followed by mid-term planning, which involves getting the basics back such as temporary housing and lifeline utilities. Finally the long term reconstruction phase begins. Each of these phases has drastically different needs, requirements, and timelines.
  • Global-scale requirements -- National disaster relief is a problem that even government-scale organizational structures struggle to deal with. What are the core needs and how can they be met? Who is being impacted? Who is going to participate and how? What are the implications of your solution? What is already being done and how can you fit in effectively? How many different cultures are going to be using your tool? What languages are involved? These are all vital questions which have to be thought through.
  • Lives are at stake -- Behind this entire process is an ultimate fact: These technologies are dealing with matters of life and death. If an organization relies on a tool for some portion of its operations and the tool fails there could be very real and serious consequences.

What exactly do these issues mean from a system design standpoint? How do these concerns end up shaping a project? Hopefully some examples can help illustrate that.

Example 1: Konbit

konbit jpg

Greg Elliott and Aaron Zinman, two students at the MIT Media Lab, noticed a major problem with the way reconstruction efforts were being approached after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The issue was simple: Haiti lacked the information infrastructure needed to effectively identify local skill sets at scale and hire Haitians to assist in the rebuilding tasks.

For instance, instead of hiring a local plumber or electrician, someone might be flown in from the United States to get the job done. Plumbers, bricklayers, drivers, nurses, and translators all live within the crisis areas, but without a way for foreign NGOs to easily discover them and their skill sets they simply aren't hired. To make the problem more challenging, access to the Internet in Haiti is uncommon, meaning a purely web-based solution would offer no help at all. Additionally, 50% of the country is illiterate, so even SMS-based solutions are not appropriate.

They created Konbit to address this problem. It provides a phone-based interface that allows Haitians to register their skills and life experiences via an automated interview process. The interviews are then translated and categorized, resulting in an online searchable directory that employers and NGOs can use to discover local workers. They have more than 3,000 workers ready to be hired right now and are looking for NGOs and employers who can use their database.

Example 2: Ushahidi

ushahidi map.jpg

While Konbit focuses on the rebuilding phase of a disaster, Ushahidi, a 2008 Knight News Challenge winner, has proven how powerful an information-mapping platform can be in the immediate response to a crisis. Within days of the tsunami in Japan, an instance of the platform was set up to track reports and needs from the ground. This particular map (see above) has an aggregation of reports with labels such as "Wanted!" "Disaster Area," and "Available Service."

As those of you who are familiar with the Ushahidi platform already know, it is brilliant because the open tools are general enough to be easily and quickly adapted for use in new situations. Information transfer based on geography is going to be needed in any crisis situation and many non-crisis situations as well. This helps separate the technology from the context, which means that at the very least a general information flow can be quickly set up almost immediately after disaster strikes.

Example 3: Grassroots Mapping

One of the projects that has come out of the Center for Future Civic Media is a set of tools and techniques for community-driven maps called Grassroots Mapping. The tools allow individuals to create high resolution maps using what boils down to a kite and a camera. Unlike Konbit and Ushahidi, this project is much more focused on the documentation of geographic change.

The project had immediate application after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, where thousands of miles of coastline were contaminated with oil over a period of several weeks. Satellite imagery gave a sense of the damage, but grassroots maps made it possible to create high resolution maps of the damage, which are now part of the public record for anyone to view and use.

Designing for a Need

I want to wrap up the post with a story about my own miniature attempt to contribute to the world of relief technology. As reactors were beginning to overheat in Japan, I heard someone comment on a desire to better understand what was actually needed and how they could help. That night I threw together a quick Google Maps mash-up with the hope to make it easy for people to help log needs and support organizations on the ground:

schultz map.jpg

The next day I learned about the Ushahidi instance and put my project on temporary hold; a few days of rushed hacking wasn't going to save Japan and I needed some giant shoulders to stand on. One week later, it seems that the original need I was approaching -- making it possible for American donors to understand how and where they could help -- is still not being met. Ushahidi has the information buried inside of its maps but the interface is simply not designed for that purpose and the reports are in Japanese.

I want to tap into Ushahidi by creating a layer which can frame the information for charitable supporters rather than for NGOs and survivors. The goal is a system that turns information into action by helping people with resources understand where needs are being met, who is meeting them, and how they can help. In the meantime, though, I would love to hear about any type of relief technology that you have seen which stood out as successful or unique.

January 12 2011


Haiti, before/after/now: Google images tell the tale

It’s been a year since Haiti’s devastating earthquake, and news organizations have been finding creative and commendable ways to mark the sad anniversary. Some are going local, finding stories within their communities that bring the tragedy home; some are going meta, examining big-picture issues like technology and foreign aid as they relate to the crisis. And others are going back — to Haiti itself, to the scene of the quake, to paint a picture of how far the country’s come and how far it still needs to go.

Of this last group, The New York Times’s coverage stands out: The paper’s interactive team put together a fantastic interactive map of the devastation, allowing users to experiment with satellite images of Haiti before the quake, immediately after, and now.

The feature’s general awesomeness isn’t a surprise: Fairly or not, excellence from the team is pretty much an expectation at this point. What’s more remarkable than the graphic’s quality is its source: The interactive uses images from Google Earth and the earth imagery outfit GeoEye. And those images were offered by Google itself.

In advance of today’s anniversary, a rep from Google Maps and Earth reached out to news organizations, offering a downloadable, high-res photo album; before-and-after stills, hosted by a third party, of tent villages; and videos of before-and-after scenes, including Port-au-Prince’s Pétionville Golf Course-turned-tent camp (on both Quicktime HD and YouTube) and Haiti’s National Palace (Quicktime HD, YouTube). It also provided raw footage — of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (July ‘09, January ‘10, November ‘10), Haiti’s airport (July ‘09, January ‘10), its National Palace (August ‘09, November ‘10), and Pétionville (August ‘09, November ‘10) — and contextual info in the form of a collection of Lat Long blog posts describing the mapping efforts the outfit undertook throughout 2010.

On its own, none of that — Google’s provision of images and video, a news organization’s use of it — is a huge deal: News outlets regularly make good use of Google’s trove of information, for stories big and small. But, as an experiment in collaboration, the Times’s Google-fied cross-pollination is a small reminder of the benefit that can come when news organizations take advantage of resources that lay beyond the walls of their own newsrooms — finding ways of getting there without actually going there. As Sean Carlson, Google’s manager of news industry relations, explained to me: “We’ve heard that Google Earth and Google Maps can be like helicopters in the hands of any news organization.”

The images, videos, and background info are all still available for any news outfit that wants to use them. A good thing, because, today’s 365-day news peg notwithstanding, the story of Haiti’s devastation isn’t over. The quake created 20 million cubic feet of debris. A year later, only 5 percent of that has been cleared.

January 11 2011


How Mapping, SMS Platforms Saved Lives in Haiti Earthquake

This article was co-authored by Mayur Patel

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti last January, killing more than 230,000 people and leaving several million inhabitants of the small island nation homeless. Though natural disasters are common, the humanitarian response this time was different: New media and communications technologies were used in unprecedented ways to aid the recovery effort.

A report released today by Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities, with support from Internews and funding from the Knight Foundation, takes a critical look at the role of communications in the crisis and recommends ways to improve the effectiveness of utilizing media in future disaster relief efforts. (The Knight Foundation is a major funder for MediaShift and its sister site MediaShift Idea Lab.)

In the weeks after the crisis, Haiti quickly became a real world laboratory for several new applications, such as interactive maps and SMS texting platforms. In the aftermath of the quake, these tools were used for the first time on a large scale to create dialogue between citizens and relief workers, to help guide search-and-rescue teams and find people in need of critical supplies. The report, Lessons from Haiti [PDF download] (co-authored by Anne Nelson and Ivan Sigal, with assistance from Dean Zambrano), recounts the stories of media participants, technologists, humanitarian organizations, Haitian journalists and response teams involved in the relief. Many of these players were first brought together to share their experiences at a roundtable convened by the Knight Foundation and Internews last May.

Notable Innovations

"The most notable innovations to emerge from Haiti were: the translation of crowdsourced data to actionable information; the use of SMS message broadcasting in a crisis; and crowdsourcing of open maps for humanitarian application," according to the report. A dizzying array of new media and information technology groups, Haitian diaspora networks and media development partners were involved in these initiatives (see the infographic below). Although these innovations had varying levels of impact in Haiti, they showcased the potential for use in future crises.


One of the most notable developments was the application of Ushahidi, an online crisis mapping platform that was born only a few years earlier in Kenya. Ushahidi had already been used to map political violence, but it had not yet been used in the context of large-scale natural disasters. When the earthquake struck, an ad hoc coalition quickly took shape, anchored by a group of graduate students at Tufts University in Boston.

The Ushahidi teams, supported by translators from the Haitian diaspora community in the U.S., gathered information from news reports and individuals about the most acute needs on the ground: rescue, food and water, and security, among others. The coordinates were placed on a map and made available to rescue and relief teams.

Soon they were able to include SMS texts in their bank of information. A few days after the quake, Digicel, one of Haiti's leading telecom companies, agreed to offer a free short code (4636) for SMS texts in service of the relief efforts, with the help of InSTEDD, a technology focused humanitarian organization. The four-digit code enabled cell phone users to send free messages to central information centers about missing persons and emergency needs. SMS messages and direct reports from Haitian citizens began to flow within four days of the quake.

OpenStreetMaps, an open community of volunteer mappers, joined the effort to create online maps of Haiti's improvised and unnamed neighborhoods. These maps became the standard reference points: Users included not just information technology platforms such as Ushahidi, but also large providers of humanitarian services, such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC).

Not Necessarily a Success Story

However, the CDAC Report cautions against calling the Haitian experience a "new media success story," as some of the approaches -- attempted for the first time -- faltered. The crisis threw together volunteer technology communities and professional humanitarian organizations, without a common language and operating procedures. A lack of coordination and understanding of how to use and integrate the new tools into existing disaster relief structures further complicated efforts on the ground.

In addition, new media efforts did not preclude the importance of traditional media. As in past crises in the developing world, radio continued to be the most effective tool for serving the information needs of the local population. With Haiti's newspapers and television broadcasters knocked out of production for the first few weeks after the quake, radio provided a heroic lifeline. One Haitian station, SignalFM, was able to broadcast continuously throughout the crisis, and worked closely with both international relief organizations and the digital innovators in support of the population. Popular radio host Cedre Paul reached his audience via Twitter as well as on the air.

"We have always known that one of the best ways to communicate with affected population in crises is through radio broadcasts," said Mark Frohardt, vice president of humanitarian programs for Internews, a media development organization. "We found in Haiti that innovative technologies not only had an impact on information delivery on their own, but also greatly enhanced the reach and effectiveness of radio."

Still Work to be Done

For all the welcome innovation, the report makes it clear that digital humanitarian action has a long ways to go. One of the big obstacles to the Haiti effort was the lack of pre-existing connections between the large government and international institutions and the new tech activists. Large institutions tend to mean weighty protocol, some of it based on long and bitter experience. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), for example, has strict rules of confidentiality, which has allowed it to play a uniquely useful role in conflicted and tense situations, while the open source community's hallmarks are spontaneity and transparency.

Nonetheless, the connections among the various sectors advanced in Haiti, stimulated by a common desire to help, and there are many signs that new synapses are emerging. For example, CDAC has made some progress bridging the gaps between the humanitarian and media communities. The report calls for more of this kind of cross-sector collaboration to improve future recovery efforts. Specifically, it recommends that media, new technology developers and humanitarian agencies (both UN and international NGOs) engage in joint preparation and simulation exercises for future emergency responses.

We should not forget that Haiti's crisis is far from over. Many donors have yet to fulfill their commitments for reconstruction funds, and much of the rubble remains. New digital initiatives are still appearing; one promising new effort from MIT is an online labor exchange for Haitians called Konbit.

Disasters will continue to occur. But their damage can be mitigated by relief efforts that are well-planned and executed in concert with the local population. Digital media technologies offer a unique opportunity to advance these goals with the right on-the-ground coordination. As the report notes: Haiti demonstrated "the culmination of a vision and the beginning of the hard work of implementation."

Anne Nelson is an educator, consultant and author in the field of international media strategy. She created and teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and teaches an international teleconference course at Bard College. She is a senior consultant on media, education and philanthropy for Anthony Knerr & Associates. She is on Twitter as @anelsona, was a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».


A year later, lessons for media from Haiti earthquake response

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, as well as the anniversary of one of the largest humanitarian responses to a natural disaster, with almost $3.8 billion in aid given or pledged. The international response required coordination between the Haitian government, foreign governments, NGOs, and the people directly affected by the disaster, becoming a real-world laboratory for testing new tools — from SMS short messaging to crowdsourced crisis mapping with Ushahidi — according to a new report from the Knight Foundation. And the response’s successes and failures could prove valuable lessons both for responding to the next crisis and for better understanding mass media.

Three innovations in particular, the report says, were put to the test: Broadcasting crisis information with SMS, crowdsourcing data into actionable information, and using open mapping tools to meet humanitarian needs.

The report found that none of them, however, would have been as effective without one very low-tech tool: radio.

Radio still Haiti’s dominant medium

In a country with a literacy rate of just 52 percent, traditional newspapers and Internet access would have been of low value even if the presses and power lines hadn’t been knocked out of commission. Inexpensive, resilient, and nearly universal radio access, however, cut past literacy and economic boundaries, particularly since one station, Signal FM, managed to continue operation throughout the crisis. Signal FM, and other stations as they returned to broadcasting, served as vital information sources, detailing aid and emergency procedures and helping connecting survivors with other resources.

“Although much of the attention has been paid to new media technologies, radio was the most effective tool for serving the needs of the public,” the report notes. But while radio provided the first line of communications, new technologies were critically in actually connecting communities with the aid they needed.

For help, text 4636

Despite erratic cellular service (cell towers would often go live for a few hours, followed by hours of silence), SMS text messaging proved an invaluable tool: Even when coverage was down, messages could be queued and then sent when access returned. The Knight report states that the first usage was informal: Local journalists received pleas for help or reports from the ground. But local service provider Digicel, collaborating with non-profit InSTEDD, set up a dedicated, free short code service at the number 4636, which was up and running four days after the quake and allowed Haitians to text in reports and even requests for emergency help — even as the system was used by Thomson Reuters Foundation to broadcast basic shelter, hygiene and security alerts to roughly 26,000 subscribers.

Across the Atlantic, SMS messages were also playing a very important relief role: raising money. SMS was widely used by the Red Cross and other organizations in the United States to spur convenient giving, helping raise $30 million in the 10 days after the earthquake. In fact, more people donated via text messaging (14 percent) than telephone (12 percent) or e-mail (5 percent).

Despite the invaluable data in the flood of wireless bits, though, the mix of languages, formats, and levels of urgency sent in to relief workers also posed serious logistical hurdles.

Crowdsourcing through the diaspora

Critical to parsing through all the data were centers far outside of Haiti, like one group in Boston that helped geolocate emergency texts, information that was then passed along to relief workers on location. Groups of Haitian expatriates helped translate the flood of data from Creole, French, and Spanish into English, passing it along to the most appropriate aid organizations as well as the U.S. Marines, who often served as the basis for search-and-rescue missions.

In Haiti, the report found the use crowdsourced emergency information had hit a turning point, helping inform real-time decision-making.

“In most previous efforts, information was collected mostly to understand when, where and why events were occurring. It had been relatively rare for such information to be useful for actual response to a specific problem,” the report states. “In Haiti, by contrast, limited numbers of humanitarian responders attempted to include crowdsourced information to help form their decisions about where to respond, to send search-andrescue teams, to identify collapsed structures and to deliver resources. While these efforts were not systemic in nature, they were nonetheless groundbreaking.”

Ushahidi mapping provides real-time relief

The report also highlights the use of crowdmapping tool Ushahidi, which volunteers used to map many of the incoming pleas for help to determine trouble “hot spots” and inform rescue operations where they were needed. Haiti.ushahidi.com served as one focal point for cataloging submitted public health, security and other dangers, making it easy to quickly see what problems a particular area was facing and quickly deploy help there.

While the report is careful to note that these efforts were limited, it highlighted the potential noted that even these early efforts were making a difference. According to a Ushahidi team leader at Tufts, “On the third day, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) called us to say keep mapping no matter what people say – it’s saving lives.”

The changed role of media in crisis

While the report focuses on primarily local and “humanitarian media,” it notes that journalists often played an important role in not just documenting the damage and recovery, but in connecting the local communities with information when traditional lines of communication were severely disrupted. Trusted on-air radio personalities switched from delivering hit music to health bulletins, while reporters passed along reports of danger and distress. Radio host Cedre Paul, the host of “Radio One Haiti,” sent out “prolific Twitter messages that provided real-time updates to his many followers,” the report noted.

While the blurred role of NGOs in media serve is by no means new, Haiti served as powerful reminder of the dual role — both documenting and aiding — that news organizations can serve. Even traditional outlets, like CNN and the New York Times, served in relief capacities by partnering with NGOs and Google to create a unified Haitian people finder.

Unmet potential

While the report focuses on the successes, it recognizes that many barriers still needed to be deal with in order for the highlighted technologies to have a maximum impact, particularly in regards to education and policies within more traditiona aid and government organizations, which often have strict privacy rules, for example, that often conflict with the transparency required by crowdsourced projects like Ushahidi. Still, both sides, the technologists and the aid organizations, are realized that gains made clear from cooperation, the report states, and strides are being made towards better integration of these technologies into traditional response plans.

“This process of creating new forms of collaboration between different organizational cultures will not be quick or easy,” the report concludes. “However, the promise of such collaboration is recognized by many of those involved, on both sides of the equation. The question is not whether this process will advance, but how.”

The full Knight report and related materials are available for download.

January 10 2011


Serious game: inside the Haiti earthquake response

I know that many of us are struggling with doing things online that are educational AND interesting. I love so called "serious games" for that purpose, but of course they take a long time to produce and are anything but cheap. Which is why I'd like to share an example with you.

A camera team that was working with the Red Cross while I was in Haiti just created a serious game that allows players to take on the role of a journalist, aidworker or survivor and I think it's really impressive. 

I wrote a quick review on my blog: http://sm4good.com/2011/01/10/game-haiti-earthquake-response/ 


January 05 2011


Konbit: Connecting orgs in Haiti to Haitian labor, whether online, offline, literate, illiterate...

One of the intriguing developments following the earthquake in Haiti a year ago was NGOs' coming to terms with the fact that their dependance on technology allowed them to overlook local labor. Konbit, a remarkable project developed by Media Lab students, took this to heart.

After the earthquake, many new NGOs arrived to help, yet only the established ones had reliable access to a key labor resource: speakers of Haitian Creole.

So despite being surrounded by countless Creole speakers, the NGOs flew translators in, at high cost.

The Media Lab's Greg Elliot and Aaron Zinman developed Konbit in response. Konbit allows any local with a mobile phone to call a number and record a narrative of their skills--Creole, midwifery, whatever the skills may be. That short narrative is then translated by volunteers, and NGOs can search those translations for the workers they need.

Earlier today, Public Radio International reported on Konbit:

You can dial into Konbit from anywhere in Haiti, courtesy of local cell provider Digicel. You are then greeted by what’s probably a familiar voice, at least if you’re Haitian. The team got veteran broadcaster Bob Lemoine to record the voice prompts.

“His voice is great,” says Zinman. “It was good to have a voice that Haitians would trust.”

After a brief welcome message, Konbit then leads you through a series of those all too familiar voice prompts, asking if you have certain kinds of work experience.

Engineering, leadership and nursing are Konbit categories. So, too, are babysitting and sewing. When you find an area where you have expertise, you can leave a detailed voice mail message highlighting your skills.

“We wanted to figure out how we could help people tell stories about their lives,” Eliot says.

PRI reports that Konbit has been running in beta for just two weeks but has already handled 500 calls.

Center for Future Civic Media director Chris Csikszentmihályi served as one of Konbit's collaborators

December 13 2010


How OpenStreetMap Helps to Curb Haiti's Cholera Epidemic

In order to respond to the current cholera epidemic in Haiti, it's essential that citizens, aid groups and others are aware of the locations of functioning health and sanitation facilities. The challenge is that maps showing this information don't currently exist -- at least not in a comprehensive and up-to-date way.

Guensmork Alcin is attempting to change this. He is working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to expand OpenStreetMap, a free and open source map of the world that has one of the most detailed GIS data sets in existence on Haiti. Guensmork, known as Guens, is training local IOM staff and folks from the International Committee for the Red Cross and the World Food Programme responding to the epidemic on how to use hand-held GPS devices to collect data to add to maps on OpenStreetMap. He is one of 30 Haitians recently hired by IOM to work full-time contributing to OpenStreetMap to improve map details and grow the community around it.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team

I first met Guens last March when I traveled to Haiti with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). In the days immediately following the January earthquake, hundreds of volunteers from all over the world used recently liberated satellite imagery to trace roads, building footprints, and other map features of Haiti into the OpenStreetMap database. The data they produced quickly became critical to the response and was used on the GPS devices of first responders and as a resource in planning the response by the UN cluster system. As part of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, I was in Port au Prince to help UN and NGO staff understand how to use and participate in OpenStreetMap. We also wanted to find ways to engage with civil society members and NGOs with a long-term stake in Haiti -- and not just with the humanitarian workers that would cycle out after the initial stages of the response.

Guensmork Photo: Guensmork Alcin leading an OpenStreetMap training, courtesy of Todd Huffman

Guens became involved as a representative of the Cite Soleil Community Forum. He had seen aid workers survey Cite Soleil and believed that, with a little help in the form of a loaned GPS or two, the people of Haiti's most famous slum could collect this information -- vital to planning the distribution of aid -- themselves. Inspired by Mikel Maron's work mapping Kibera, Nairobi, we partnered with Community Forum to throw a a mapping party in Cite Soleil to bring folks together to learn about OpenStreetMap and find out how they could get involved and contribute to it by mapping their neighborhoods.

Importance of Accurate Information

Eight months later I returned to Haiti on the fifth trip undertaken by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. Since that first mapping party, we've worked with Guens and other Cite Soleil residents to map first their community and then other parts of the country. The team they've built is collecting data critical to the cholera response, building the local OpenStreetMap community, and ensuring that the best maps of the country are created by Haitians and are free to use by anyone who needs them.

As the cholera epidemic worsens, the work that Guens and his team are doing is only more important. Accurate information about the location and quality of water and sanitation infrastructure and health facilities is critical to efforts to combat the disease. With the continued support of IOM, this data will be public, regularly updated, and available for use by all aspects of the response.

October 20 2010


Haiti Earthquake Relief - Solar Powered Satellite Telemedicine & Disaster Management

In two recent earthquake relief deployments to Haiti, HELP provided solar powered satellite communications and situational awareness for search and rescue teams, mobile medical clinics, emergency telemedicine, and for other non-governmental relief agency response.

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OpenStreetMap's Audacious Goal: Free, Open Map of the World

In our previous posts on TileMill, we’ve focused on how open data can be used to create custom mapsand tell unique stories. One question we run into a lot is, “Where does open data come from?”

One exciting source is a global mapping project called OpenStreetMap (OSM). Founded in 2004 with the goal of creating a free and open map of the world, OSM now boasts over 300,000 contributors and has comparable or better data for many countries than the popular proprietary or closed datasets. The premise is simple and powerful: Anyone can use the data, and anyone can help improve it.

OSM-based map of Port au Prince made with TileMill

With this huge amount of data, activity, and adoption, we’re excited about how TileMill is going to give more people ways to leverage OSM data to make their own maps. Users will be able to mash up OSM data on their own using TileMill and turn it into their very own custom map.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team

To get a sense of the practicality of OSM, just look at the role it played in the response to the January 12 earthquake in Haiti. Reliable maps are critical to disaster response efforts and there simply wasn’t much data available for the affected areas. Within hours of the quake, the OSM community mobilized and hundreds of volunteers from all over the world began tracing available satellite imagery, importing available datasets, and coordinating with relief workers on the ground to ensure that new data was being created and distributed in ways that would best support their work.

Using OpenStreetMap as a platform and leveraging the existing, engaged community paid off — within days, volunteers had created the best available maps of Port au Prince and nearby cities. OSM data quickly appeared on the GPS devices of search and rescue teams, and in the planning tools of the international response community.

Members of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), of which I’m a member, have continued to support the use of OSM in Haiti through trainings with local NGOs, the Haitian government, and international responders. In November, I’ll be part of the fifth deployment of HOT team members to Haiti to support the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in their work to map the camps for people displaced by the earthquake, using OSM as a platform.

Through this effort by the OSM community, anyone looking to make a map of Haiti has a great database of roads, hospitals, and even collapsed buildings that they can use in their work. We see this kind of data sharing as important capacity-building to help people make useful custom maps. With TileMill, we’re working to create a practical toolset for working with this data.

Beyond Haiti

Moving beyond Haiti and thinking about maps of other places, what’s exciting about OpenStreetMap is the hundreds of community groups around the world getting together and using OSM to map their own cities and neighborhoods. If a map data doesn’t exist yet, there’s a chance that it could through the efforts of the OSM community. For instance, the image below is a picture of work the local OSM community did in Washington, DC, to make a very detailed map of the National Zoo.

Mapping the National Zoo in Washington, DC by ajturner

If you’re looking for open map data for your next project, a great place to start would be to reach out to the local OSM community in your area — there’s a good chance they can help you figure out how to get it.

July 15 2010


Ushahidi in 3G: How media outlets could extend the mapping platform beyond crisis communications

Since its launch in early 2008, the crowdsourced mapping platform Ushahidi has been used to monitor elections in Burundi, to track violence in Pakistan, to coordinate aid in Haiti. Its platform has been downloaded nearly 4,000 times; its mobile platform, more than 3,700.

It’s now been six months since Haiti’s earthquake; and Patrick Meier, Ushahidi’s director of crisis mapping and strategic partnerships, was on hand to discuss his work at Harvard’s Berkman Center earlier this week as part of the center’s regular luncheon series. (Archived here, by the way, are some of our favorite videos from past luncheons.) A point Meier stressed during his talk — and a point also stressed by Ory Okolloh, Ushahidi’s co-founder and the site’s executive director, when she and I had a conversation recently — is that, despite its most common framing, Ushahidi is not actually a crisis-mapping platform. That’s one way it can be used, certainly — and the way it’s thus far been used to greatest, and most publicized, effect — but the core logic of crowdsourced mapping can be scaled in ways that extend far beyond the urgency of tragedy.

So, after his talk, I asked Meier about the ways media outlets, in particular, can use the Ushahidi platform for newsgathering purposes; his response is in the video above and the transcript below. (The video’s background noise, if you’re curious, is a group of Berkman smarties chatting in a conference room.)

Absolutely. Sure. I mean, one example of a deployment that’s already taken place with Al Jazeera in Gaza. What I really liked about that is, first of all, the context was that they were the only media organization that were allowed to go into Gaza and report information on what was happening. And their journalists were basically texting and tweeting live to the Ushahidi map, and providing that kind of information. So it was really interesting how Al Jazeera as a media group was directing its audience to a map as the first stop to consume media information, and then from there going to other sources.

What was also really interesting is that they did both bounded and unbounded crowdsourcing — which is sort of my own terms, so maybe I should explain. “Unbounded crowdsourcing” is what we are familiar with: the idea of opening up a platform to the world, and letting the world contribute. “Bounded crowdsourcing” is when you have a specific network of individuals who are doing the reporting. So it’s a known, trusted network of individuals.

So what they did is they had their own journalists on the ground, who were texting and tweeting live to the map, but they also opened it up to other residents — people in Gaza — to also submit information. And that combination, I thought, was really, really interesting. Because what you can then start doing is, even though you don’t necessarily know whether the crowd is trustworthy, or individuals in the crowd are trustworthy — if some of these individuals start also reporting the same event that the journalists are reporting, then you know they might actually be more trustworthy. And so it creates this kind of digital trace, or like a shadow of history, if you want, that allows you to start identifying which individuals in the crowd may actually be trustworthy. And you can sort of assign them a higher credibility score. So I’d love to see that happen again.

And I think another way to do this — I’ve got another couple quick ideas — one is with smartphone apps. What would be really neat is if a company like CNN would use a Ushahidi smartphone app, like maybe the “Ushahidi citizen journalist smartphone app.” And what you do — let’s say you have it on your iPhone — when you download and open your smartphone app, you basically get prompted a question — “Do you allow CNN to know where you are at any given time?” — and you go, “Yes.” And that allows basically CNN to have access to maybe 10,000 people in New York City, and know their location. So that when something like the water landing on the Hudson River happens, you’ll know that maybe, “Oh, you have seven volunteer citizen journalists who are just around the corner.” And you can send them, automatically, a note on their smartphone saying, “If you don’t mind peeping around the corner and taking a quick picture, we’d love for you to do that.”

And I think there’s an interest in doing that. We already see this rise in citizen journalism — people being interested in contributing information, creating information, the whole user-generated revolution — so I think that could be a way for a media group to harness the crowd to be the reporters and to provide that kind of information in real time. So I’d love to see, you know, maybe something like that work.

And maybe with some of the more investigative journalist-type media groups to leverage, again, this crowdsourcing idea to get evidence on a particular case. Maybe it’s environmental pollution, it’s chemical issues. Instead of — or not instead of, but in addition to — having your reporters spend two, three months doing the interviews in whatever state, going from door to door and getting more and more evidence, maybe a media group like ProPublica could set up a platform and say, “This is a big issue in the state of California. If you’ve got any evidence about this particular material, creating health problems, take a picture, submit it on the Ushahidi platform.” And then you can start people saying, “Oh, I had that problem, too, I had that problem, too.” And you create a lobbying, a movement.

June 16 2010


Index of Charitable Giving: Nonprofit Revenue was up 12.1% Earlier this Year!

Blackbaud recently announced their new Index of Charitable Giving, a fundraising index that reports revenue trends of 1400 nonprofit organizations on a monthly basis. The tool is valuable for fundraisers and organizations interested in keep an eye on the global pulse of of monetary giving.

The Haiti Effect

read more

April 05 2010


March 26 2010


Collaboration in action: Frontline, Planet Money, NewsHour team up for multimedia project on Haiti

Today marks the launch of a new public media series on Haiti — an experimental collaboration among public media partners Frontline (WGBH), Planet Money (NPR), and the NewsHour (PBS) to document life in the country after January’s devastating earthquake.

Though the project will culminate in Tuesday’s hour-long Frontline documentary, “The Quake” — an in-depth examination of the current state of Haiti and the world’s response to the disaster — it represents a group effort, not only among several different outlets, but also across several different platforms. The project is another attempt to achieve an increasingly common goal: to maximize reportorial resources during a time when they’re dwindling — and to find ways to collaborate during a time when competition can be an impediment to good journalism as much as a boon to it.

I spoke with David Fanning, Frontline’s producer (and recent Goldsmith career award winner) to learn more about the project.

It came from “one of those impetuous moments,” Fanning explains. “We’d had conversations well over a year ago with Planet Money and Adam Davidson about ways to collaborate on financial reporting, but we weren’t able to put anything together at the time. We were all doing our own programs.” Then, this spring, they continued that conversation, discussing the possibility of a big collaboration this summer. “And then Adam said, ‘Well, actually, I’m going to Haiti next week,’” Fanning says. “And we said, ‘Well, we have a team there filming, as well. So why don’t we see if we can get someone to go with you?’”

They did. They recruited Travis Fox, who had worked for ten years at The Washington Post — most recently, as a reporter/producer/videographer for washingtonpost.com — to shoot video that would be available not only for Frontline productions, but also to the NewsHour and NPR. “The theory is open-ended — this is an experiment — to see if you can collaborate with a reporter working in the field, without getting him off-course from what he’s doing,” Fanning says.

Another experiment: the terms of the collaboration itself. “We talk about collaborations in high-flung terms,” Fanning points out, but on the molecular level, teamwork can be a series of negotiations: who takes the lead on what, who makes editorial decisions, and so on. “My instinct on this — and it was Adam’s, as well — was: ‘Let’s just try something. Let’s just do it. If we don’t like it at the end of the day, we don’t have to do it again.’”

Ultimately, the success of the project — this one, and others like it — depends on the interactions between the individuals who are producing it. “Co-productions are never between institutions,” Fanning points out; “they’re only really between the people who work together and trust each other.” Still, those people work for institutions; and institutions — even those of public media — tend to care about things like return-on-investment, and eyeballs, and traffic. When it comes to the project’s web products, who hosts the stories? Who gets the pageviews?

“In the case of Planet Money and Frontline, we’re essentially driving traffic back to the Frontline website,” Fannings says. “We’re also carrying the NPR logo. And NPR, in turn, is going to credit Frontline — and vice versa. The important thing for Planet Money and NPR is that they’ll have the video stories for themselves, and they’ll have them produced at a level that’s not as easy for them to do.”

And, more broadly, everyone will benefit from the impact of the network. “If you marry that to really good reporting in the other platforms, which could be radio and print on the web, if you bring those together and present them in a common matrix” — though it’s an open question whether that reporting is best housed on a single, shared website, or on separate ones, Fanning acknowledges — “then you’re creating something of value in a society where so much of the information is really disposable. And if it’s made in such a way that it’s very transportable, and it’s an embeddable, widgetized commodity, then it can go out and you can put it on your Facebook page and you can send it to your favorite 500 people. If you can share it in that way — and if it carries with it its connections back to those upper partnerships — then that’s just a very valuable object.”

But while the journalism should be portable and embeddable, so should the core values that underscore it: intelligence, context, quality. Fanning mentions the reporting Davidson produces for Planet Money. “If it’s done to that high degree of intelligence, then it really has currency,” he says. “Then people say, ‘You should really hear this one.’” Productions like, for example, “The Giant Pool of Money,” the much-praised and uber-trafficked collaboration with This American Life: “Those are the pieces that become memorable,” Fanning notes. “The thing you want to do is the memorable telling. Then it becomes valuable for always, in a way. And that’s the amazing promise of this new medium.”


A New Battle Cry: Release the Raw Data for Better Visualization

The most elegant, user-friendly data visualization program is useless without data to visualize; and, historically, those who possess data are reluctant to share it.

Massive data has been dominated by a thin layer of elites, and sophisticated data-visualization tools -- such as heat maps, motion charts, time maps, and tag maps -- generally have remained within the domain of those elites. This monopoly has allowed very few to decide which data were important to visualize. They've created some dazzling digital narratives, but it was a one-way street -- very high-tech, but also very news 1.0/web 1.0.

Data Visualization For All

Happily, a movement is rising to pry data from those who hoard it. Tim Berners-Lee gave an inspiring talk at TED in 2009, challenging viewers to join him in a public drive for "Raw Data Now." In 2010, Berners-Lee returned to TED with news of progress, while also egging the U.S. and U.K. into a competition for who could release more data, and recounting the inspiring case of global open source mapping for Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake earlier this year.

Equally exciting, some extremely powerful data-visualization tools now are available for anyone to create visualizations within a semi-controlled space: Data360, and IBM's Many Eyes are two of the best. We at the Jefferson Institute just released betas for a set of highly abstracted Drupal data-visualization modules -- including an importer -- which dramatically increase the range of possibilities for using data in visual storytelling. Our aim is for Drupal users to unleash the power of these tools in their own site.

Yet, for news sites big and small, experimenting with data visualization presents a large, uncomfortable challenge: allowing users the creative freedom to play with the data behind a carefully prepared visualization -- and even enable them to upload their own data, much as a reader might comment on a blog or news article. It takes courage and patience. Users might create visualizations that are ugly, misguided, or intentional misrepresentations. But you have to break some eggs to make an omelet, and this is a challenge news organizations must embrace. It will be a key component to their survival in a world of savvy consumers armed with vast quantities of data.

Sea of Data

Busting the professional monopoly on determining which data stories to tell is essential, and it becomes even more important when we consider the sea of data in which we swim today -- which is only growing larger. Soon, RFID tags will be on everything, swelling the tidal surge of data to levels we hardly can fathom.

Jack Knight called for media to inform and enlighten, so the people might determine their own true interests. As we come to understand his exhortation's new, evolving meaning, we must continually challenge ourselves to break down professional barriers in order to empower the infinite diversity of equally true interests. "Raw Data Now" should be our battle cry, and open-source data visualization modules our weaponry.

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E&P: Haitian press ‘every bit as devastated as island itself’

In a special report to its biannual meeting, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) has described the state of the Haitian media two months on from the country’s devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake. What remains of the industry has been severely damaged in its ability to bring in revenue, pay staff, and establish communication lines.

The earthquake damaged or destroyed many media office buildings as well as broadcasting equipment, printing presses and computers. And by shutting down so many businesses that bought advertisements, the quake undermined the financial foundations of the industry. Some airlines and wireless companies continue to advertise, and some aid organizations have bought public service announcements. But many other businesses that used to buy airtime or print space will take months or years to rebuild, and that could translate into a prolonged nosedive in ad revenue for the industry.

Editor & Publisher have the full report at this link…

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March 22 2010


charity: water launches UNSHAKEN campaign to fund long-term water solutions in Haiti

Today, on World Water Day, charity: water launched UNSHAKEN, a campaign to fund long-term water solutions for areas of greatest need in rural Haiti.

After the earthquake on January 12, over one million people were displaced from Port-au-Prince to the rural areas, where they have minimal or no access to clean, safe water. One-third of the nation lacked access to safe water before the quake; now, the situation is devastating. As the rural communities continue to swell, so does the risk of deadly waterborne diseases. In the coming months, charity: water plans to raise $1.3 million to serve more than 40,000 people in 11 of these areas with clean, safe drinking water. 100% of the funds raised will directly fund water projects on the ground.

You can help: watch the video, visit the UNSHAKEN site, learn more about the issues they’re facing, and help spread the word.

March 18 2010


Milton Wolf Seminar: NGOs as newsmakers, journalists and aid workers as Facebook friends

VIENNA — When a massive earthquake rocked Haiti on January 11, there was only one foreign correspondent — a writer for the Associated Press — in the country to cover the disaster. In the following days, media from around the world parachuted in, relying heavily on NGOs for sources and context.

Two weeks later, most media had left. But there was still an audience around the globe, particularly in the United States, hearing stories and getting information because a handful of NGO workers, many of them former journalists, were still tweeting and blogging about what was happening on the ground.

This anecdote, recounted by Kimberly Abbott of the International Crisis Group, was the first we heard today at the Milton Wolf Seminar on the changing role of NGOs and media. The opening panel, “NGOs as Newsmakers in a Social Media Networking Environment,” laid out great questions to start people thinking about how the Internet, social media tools, and the mainstream media’s shrinking capacity are reshaping relationships between NGOs and journalists. There are pitfalls the panelists agreed, but the potential is exciting.

Abbott says that those tweeting and blogging NGO workers are not journalists in a traditional sense, but that they have the potential to help fill gaps in coverage. “As mainstream media is cutting back, the digital revolution is making it such that the public doesn’t have to take what the media serves up — they can be the curators of their information,” Abbott said.

Thomas Seifert, a foreign correspondent for the Austrian daily Die Presse, jumped on the idea of NGOs as news producers. When he was covering the Afghan elections, the personal blog of a UN field worker had an impact on his own coverage: “During the election phase, [the UN worker] wrote wonderful pieces on his personal blog,” Seifert said. The UN’s press releases were not, he hesitated to explain, quite as helpful.

Seifert sees social media and the connections it lets him forge with NGOs as a great tool for journalists; field-workers-turned-Facebook-friends have brought him great leads on stories in India and Afghanistan. But he also warned about the pitfalls. An NGO has to have “credibility, experience and proof,” Seifert said, quoting fellow panelist Franz Küberl, the president of Caritas Austria, a Catholic charity. “That’s a very good compass for us.”

Seifert described hopping a flight to Sudan with a Christian NGO. The story he saw unfold was the NGO freeing slaves who’d been kidnapped. “Henchmen” with cash bought their freedom. “It looked wonderful on camera,” Seifert said. “They came in with huge bags of money…it was great pictures.”

Two weeks after the story ran, he and a colleague at The Boston Globe started to think, “Come on, this is really too perfect.” The New Yorker eventually did the same story, raising questions about the motivations of the NGO, writing a more nuanced look at slavery, NGOs and the relationships with the government. NGOs have plenty of interests themselves, Seifert noted. In unstable places, they may prefer to work with one faction of the government over another.

Simon Cottle of the Cardiff School for Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies offered a broader perspective on how NGOs struggle with the new media world, based on interviews he’s conducted with Australian NGOs. Cottle argued that social media isn’t the future, but just a piece of a much larger galaxy of media that NGOs must operate within.

His presentation, which included points he’s written about for the Lab, touched on how competitive the new landscape is. NGOs fight to build up a “brand” and bend what they do to get media coverage.

“It may occassionally be possible for NGOs to lead rather than follow prevailing media logic,” Cottle concluded.

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