Tuesday, February 2, 2010

#Haiti and Disaster Response 2.0

How do you process and respond to thousands of emergencies in a small area with few open roads and no hospitals? Haiti faced this problem and for once somebody had an answer.

Ushahidi.com, established in 2008 to report human rights abuses and election fraud in some very dangerous parts of the world, has a system. Send a text message, report an incident. Within 24 hours, text message capability had been restored and Ushahidi had a feed of all messages, available via RSS.

What I see coming out of this is a large collection of incidents, each with a location (geographic latitude and longitude), a time, and a short bit of text. The next piece is to sort. Twitter taught us about hash-tags like #britneyspears or #omg, but here someone came up with a clever system. A set of emergency tags that a computer can search and sort into a full logistics map.

#need vs #have: If you need food, water, medical attention, you add #need to your message. If you have food to share you write #have.

#open vs #closed: This can apply to roads, bridges, hospitals, very useful to people who have a truckload of water and need to get it somewhere.

#injured, #trapped, etc: Rescue teams need to know where people need rescue and what type of tools to bring.

So there we have live reports from the field from anyone with a mobile phone. Rescue teams have their map, doctors can decide where to establish field hospitals, and the trucks with supplies know where they are needed and how best to get there.

Lest you dismiss this as more Web 2.0 Twitterish nonsense, know that the U.S. State Department is using this data, along with nearly every other government and NGO responding to the crisis.

Sound good? It's not done yet. Crisis Commons has been holding meetings around the country with people who want to help build this. This is a several orders of magnitude improvement in large-scale emergency response, but the effort is just getting underway.

Silicon Valley people are motivated and thanks to the San Andreas fault, may find themselves a future test case.

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