Crowdsourcing crisis information in disaster-affected Haiti

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Jessica Heinzelman and Carol Waters

On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti. More than 230,000 people died, and some of Haiti’s most populous areas suffered mass destruction. The international community responded immediately to launch extensive search and rescue missions and provide emergency assistance.

• The traditional disaster-response system employed by relief actors in Haiti concentrated on enabling information-sharing among teams of responders from the international community. This system lacked the ability to aggregate and prioritize data that came from outside sources, making it difficult to benefit from valuable information coming from the Haitian community.
• Ushahidi, an open-source crisis-mapping software first developed and used in Kenya, provided a way to capture, organize, and share critical information coming directly from Haitians. Information was gathered through social media (e.g., blogs, Twitter, and Facebook) and text messages sent via mobile phones.
• Reports about trapped persons, medical emergencies, and specific needs, such as food, water, and shelter, were received and plotted on maps that were updated in real time by an international group of volunteers.
• These reports, and associated geographic information, were available to anyone with an Internet connection. Responders on the ground soon began to use them in determining how, when, and where to direct resources.
• The most significant challenges arose in verifying and triaging the large volume of reports received. Ad hoc but sufficient solutions were found that involved the manual monitoring and sorting of information.

The Ushahidi−Haiti Project demonstrated the potential of crowdsourced • maps for targeted disaster response, providing a useful foundational model for the international community to leverage and improve upon in advance of future emergencies.