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Center for Future Civic Media speed-develops tech for Haiti

CMS’s sister group, the Center for Future Civic Media, was uniquely positioned to respond to communication needs in Haiti following last week’s devastating earthquake.

Haiti earthquake

Center researchers, led by director Chris Csikszentmihalyi, have been aiding this first majorly tech-heavy humanitarian response, helping ensure developers open their tools to one another. It sounds minor at first, but nearly every news outlet and NGO has ramped up its technological capability in recent years–but without consideration for standards for sharing information in the middle of a crisis.

Csikszentmihalyi’s open letter to developers this past weekend was picked up everywhere, most prominently by the New York Times’ technology writer David Pogue:

In the response to the earthquake in Haiti, many organizations have created sites where people could find one another, or least information about their loved ones. This excellent idea has been undermined by its success: within 24 hours, it became clear that there were too many places where people were putting information; each site became a silo.

People within the IT community recognized the danger of too many unconnected sites, and Google became interested in helping. Google is now running an embeddable application at: https://web.archive.org/web/20100730085301/http://haiticrisis.appspot.com/

We recognize that many newspapers have put precious resources into developing a people-finder system. We nonetheless urge them to make their data available to the Google project, and standardize on the Google widget. Doing so will greatly increase the number of successful reunions.

I am not affiliated with Google—indeed, this is a volunteer initiative by some of their engineers—but this is one case where their reach and capacity can help the most people.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the reasoning behind this request. Any questions about the widget or its functionality or features are best directed to Google.

Meanwhile, the Center is maintaining an open thread on its website to track the Haiti-tech response. If you have ideas to share, please contribute and it will get re-shared to important mailing lists.

On a personal note, Google’s people-finder at https://web.archive.org/web/20100730085301/http://haiticrisis.appspot.com/ has already helped me (Andrew) find a former Tufts colleague based in Haiti during the quake and report back to her coworkers that she indeed returned safely to the Boston area on Saturday.

So the crisis is ongoing, but the fast-response civic technology the Center is studying and implementing–it works, even at this scale.

Andrew Whitacre
Written by
Andrew Whitacre

Andrew directs the communications efforts for CMS/W and its research groups. A native of Washington, D.C., he holds a degree in communication from Wake Forest University, with a minor in humanities, as well as an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College.

This work includes drawing up and executing strategic communications plans, with projects including website design, social media management and training, press outreach, product launches, fundraising campaign support, and event promotions.

Andrew Whitacre Written by Andrew Whitacre