Shortly after the earthquake in Haiti I decided that it was my time to do something and try to help out in a way that went beyond the usual “effort” of donating some cash to a charity. Having a background in wireless (wifi) networking has had me thinking about the applications for wifi networks in disaster areas for some time. Wifi networks can be deployed quickly, cheaply, require no spectrum licenses and most of all have been proven to work. The fast roll-out of wifi networks after Hurricanes Katrina & Charley in the US had shown the benefits of such technology.
Anyway I digress, this is not a blogpost about technology. What I want to write about is how digital media can be used to organise a disaster relief effort. The first thing I did after the idea started formulating in my head was to put up a blogpost. After this blogpost went up it was important to drive traffic to it. Twitter is the best way to do this so I tweeted a link to my post (including the title). As expected this led to an increased number of visitors to the blogpost and shortly after that it also spun out into a good number of comments. Comments are the real lifeblood of a blog. Without comments there would be no discussion or exchange of opinions and your blogpost will just fade away into the grey mist of time. Comments will also increase the page ranking of your blog as keywords used (and repeated) will be picked up by the search engines. It’s a bit of a vicious circle. More comments will drive more traffic which will result in more comments….
I also put direct contact details (email, twitter and even phone number) in the blogpost. I would normally not include all this but the point of this blogpost was to raise awareness & create action and support so it was essential for readers to not only be able to comment but to also contact me. So now I had lots of traffic coming to the blog, plenty of comments and an increasing number of emails, tweets and phonecalls. In other word people were becoming aware of what I was trying to achieve and the support that I needed was starting to come in. No time to relax though. I next setup a dedicated website, Linkedin group & FaceBook page. My aim was now to move traffic away from the blogpost and direct it to the website which was now the hub of our online activities. The website would contain the “who, what, where & how” while twitter, Facebook and Linkedin would give updates on progress and create discussion.
I was not alone in working digital (online) media for these means. The updates and “calls to action” in regards to Haiti was ever increasing. There was a constant stream of updates on the situation in Haiti. There were even people in Port-au-Prince using Twitter to distribute information about aid distribution or to offer to share their meagre resources. News of any of the aftershocks also made it onto Twitter long before the mainstream media picked it up.
We are now 6 weeks into our relief effort and the results have been astounding. Through the use of social media we have now a pool of 45+ qualified volunteers, around $250,000 worth of donated equipment ready to ship, a forward staging area in Florida and air transport from Florida to Haiti. 95% of our communication internally and externally goes via email, twitter & Skype. We have also been in constant contact with NGO’s & relief organisations on the ground, ISP’s & Telecoms companies in Haiti and what’s most important we’ve bene talking to Haitians directly. The greatest advantage of this is that our “organisation” is working with people spread across different continents, across different timezones without being bound to location. I can be anywhere but as long as I have internet access I can use my trusty Nokia E71 or my laptop to communicate, arrange and stay in touch. This also means that there is no need to spend funds on office space, equipment or other overheads. That way we can ensure that almost every penny we receive in donations is spent on actual aid to Haiti.
Now I am not saying that this is groundbreaking or in any way pioneering but I hope that it goes some way to showing other people how it is possible to organise something like this by using free digital media tools. It lowers the treshhold to actually making a difference and reaching halfway across the globe to help people in need. Now Haiti Connect is by no means “there” yet. We are now in urgent need of flights to fly 4 volunteers & equipment from Ireland to Florida. Only then can we actually start building the much-needed networks. So if you read this and are in a position to help us with this please do not hesitate to contact me! And off course we need to keep up the ongoing fundraising during the 6 month duration of our initiative to ensure we can cover all our expenses. Again, most of the costs are incurred in Haiti so the money spend on them will benefit the local economy.