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January 12 2011

16:30

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

17:45

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.

haitiResponse_final_03.jpg

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.

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March 18 2010

09:32

March 03 2010

15:30

Are Photos by Aid Workers an Invasion of Privacy in Haiti?

I recently spent a week in Port au Prince, Haiti, helping in a tent hospital set up at the airport.

michelle.jpgWhen I arrived back in San Francisco, I wrote about my experience in Haiti on my blog and posted pictures I had taken. I also posted photos on my Facebook profile, including images of smiling children who had just been operated on, long lines of patients, and even some "fun" photos, such as a few of me letting off some steam with a brigade of Portuguese firefighters at their camp (see photo at left).


Now, a rumor is circulating among volunteers that we should remove any photos of our time at the hospital from Facebook and other websites, unless we had received permission to take photographs.

On one hand, it seems like a reasonable request. Some of the photographs posted by volunteers seem invasive: There are photos of an anonymous leg being cut into, an un-named mother giving birth, people who are clearly sedated, and bleary-eyed volunteers drinking beer at the UN café. They have attracted attention and criticism at the hospital, and among some of our Facebook friends.


One friend of mine, who put a strange mix of suffering, surgeries, and drunken party photos on Facebook, posted a rant defending her right to post whatever she wanted. Her logic: If CNN can film a woman giving birth, then why is it wrong for her to do the same? She pointed out she is saving lives, and had the cojones to drop everything to help in Haiti in the first place, unlike her critics back home.



This ethical debate is inspired by the ability of anyone to easily create and distribute media such as photos, videos or blog posts. Professional media have long been training their cameras and mikes on the victims of natural disasters, but now anyone can do it, too. Is it more invasive just because some of us don't have a press pass?

Glimpsing Freedom -- And TV Cameras

Recently, a man who was rescued after being trapped for 27 days glimpsed the sky and the CNN cameras at almost the same moment. This isn't surprising. At one point, when I was in Haiti, I was counseling a traumatized mute boy at the hospital when all of a sudden he and I we were swarmed by a U.S. news network camera crew. Their lenses were inches from the boy's face as a doctor I had not met before talked about the boy's needs and his "thousand-yard stare." I remember thinking, "What this boy needs is for you to get the camera out of his face."

haiti2.JPGLater, a reality show doctor showed up and demanded that doctors operate on an 87 year-old woman with a broken pelvis that the TV doctor had "rescued" from her home. A real doctor accused the TV doctor of exploiting a disaster for her own interests.


Perhaps this is why blogs, Facebook posts, and tweets from citizens can sometimes do a better job of putting a human face on the suffering in Haiti, and bring it home to people who may not otherwise pay attention. We've become desensitized to the way traditional media portray events like the recent one in Haiti; it's possible that the authenticity contained in the accounts of non-journalists on the ground have a greater impact on folks back in the States.

Like most of those who have responded so generously to the crisis in Haiti, even the grandstanders probably had good intentions. But they can get in the way of those working to help the victims, and they can make it appear as if all of us on the ground are being insensitive, heedless of privacy, and are pumped up by our own do-goodedness.

Not surprisingly, the day after the reality TV doctor made her dramatic visit, strict media guidelines were put in place at the camp. Reporters needed to be vetted, sign in, and wear "authorized" media badges.

To Remove or Not?

So will I take all my Facebook photos down? Well, they have always only been accessible to my friends -- but I did remove a few photos and stories from my blog. I will not, however, take down all my stories and photos. Even though I am returning to the hospital and don't want to jeopardize my chances to do so, I feel certain that nothing I've posted is an invasion of someone's privacy.

Then again, maybe I am simply desensitized and part of the system myself.

Michelle May is a San Francisco-based relief worker, traveler and school psychologist. Follow her travels on her blog.

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January 20 2010

10:57

Reporting Haiti: How news orgs are covering the story online

A week on since a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, how are news websites covering the story? What tools are being used and how are media organisations helping those affected with information on top of news for a wider audience?

Here’s a selection of sites that have made the most of multimedia tools to break and roll reports of the crisis. Please add your own examples in the comment space below or email Journalism.co.uk.

Breaking news of the quake
Journalism student Emily Purser was interning at Sky News when the earthquake happened:

Unsurprisingly, the earthquake took out all the landline and mobile phone lines in Haiti immediately. This obviously disabled the country spectacularly – as well as the pressing issue of not being able to speak to each other, it meant that Haitians were not able to speak to the rest of the world. As a result, the classic ways of gathering information for a rolling news channel – call everyone we know and find out what’s happening – were redundant. We had a map, and that was it.

Twitter, Google Chat, Skype and Facebook were used to contact sources and conduct interviews; while YouTube and searches of TwitPic provided on-the-ground footage. These tools were being picked up by the entire newsroom, Purser tells us, not just the online team. What’s more the geography of the newsroom (the online desk is right next to the studio floor, for example) helped grow the story across platforms, she adds.

Beet.tv has this video interview with Reuters’ global editor of politics and world affairs Sean Macguire, who explains how the news agency builds up a network of local stringers to prepare for crisis coverage.

Macguire describes how some of the first video footage of the disaster was sent back to London by a Reuters’ videographer thanks to a “friendly embassy” in Port au Prince with an internet connection.

Helping to find the missing
Online news coverage and multimedia from Haiti has been used to locate missing persons by relatives. CNN in particular is using its citizen journalism site iReport to help connect people with family, friends and loved ones in Haiti.

An ‘assignment’ on the iReport site asks users to submit photos of missing people, including their last name, first name, age, city and any other significant details. So far, 6,753 iReports have been sent in for this assignment.

With CNN’s main site, a database of all the reports submitted by users has been created, which can be searched by name and is updated with information about those missing relatives and friends featured in the iReports.

“We are also in the process of integrating incoming e-mails, phone calls to CNN and tweets to the #haitimissing hashtag,” a CNN spokesman said – helping individuals conduct a wider search for information about missing loved ones.

“Since the earthquake hit, the Impact Your World page has had an increase of 7,545 per cent in page views over the previous week.  The site lists opportunities to donate via phone, text and website, with special sections devoted to texting and international currencies.”

And there have been some good news stories as a result – survivor Karen Jean-Gilles  didn’t know if her in-laws had survived the quake until she saw the photo of Joachin “Clark” Jean-Gilles and his wife Marie on the front of the CNN.com homepage.

Social media coverage and real-time tools
Digiphile blog has a great round-up of this, but Twitter lists have been used extensively by news organisations to group together twitters and correspondents on-the-ground in Haiti.

National Public Radio (NPR) built an extensive list of sources located by recommendation, referral and through a series of geolocated searches. This fed into an initial breaking news story, which was updated throughout the day on 13 January, and has informed the site’s topic page on the crisis.

The Associated Press (AP) is continuing to build its social networking presence by offering behind-the-scenes updates via Facebook.

Elsewhere the New York Times is bolstering its main news channel coverage of Haiti by using its The Lede blog to provide rolling coverage. The blog is updating with links to reports from other news sources as well as the Times’ own coverage and has posts filed under different days stretching back to when the earthquake occurred. The aggregation of multimedia reports on the disaster available on the site’s homepage has been replicated through a Facebook page posting updates on the situation in Haiti.

The Times’ homepage currently features this rolling picture gallery, but the Lede also links to this Flickr map of geotagged photos from the area that have been uploaded online.

The site has also set up an online photo gallery to post pictures of missing persons in Haiti submitted by friends, relatives and colleagues. In addition to the Lede’s posting of comments from survivors and those trying to reach loved ones, this is both a valuable service and a source of news leads.

In Haiti
And then compare the online coverage with the media on the ground in Haiti.

This report from the Washington Post on Haitian radio station Signal 90.5fm, which has reportedly stayed on air without pause since the quake struck, provides a stark contrast to the multimedia news coverage elsewhere.

(It also reminded me of an interview with independent Zimbabwe radio station SWRA, whose founder Gerry Jackson extolled the virtues of traditional, radio-based communication and media in such situations.

Writes the Post’s William Booth:

In a city without electricity, with no functioning newspapers, no TV signals, no telephone lines, and cellular service so spotty that it is hardly service at all, radio stations in Haiti have become the lifeline of news about the living and dead.

(…) The station operates on two diesel generators and owner Mario Vian’s promise not to stop.

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