One of the factors that led to my involvement in the disaster response and rebuilding after the Haitian earthquake last year started many years before after the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in late 2004. At the time I was following the disaster recovery efforts closely and one of the things I noticed was the huge communications issues between the various organisations operating in the disaster areas as well as internally within those organisations. With my background in wireless voice & data networking I got thinking and one of the needs I identified was the need for a simple way for mobile teams to “upload” a geotagged status report which would then be collated and used to coordinate the larger SAR efforts. Something as simple as a report that contained a string of data: “deceased person found, male, located at grid coordinates X”. All this data would then be processed in a mapping & planning system while the search team would be able to move on. Such a system would need to use commonly available communication methods such as mobile phone system, wifi, satellite etc. Ease of use and affordability would be the main requirements.
Over time I kept refining the idea in my head but for a variety of reasons I never did anything tangible with it. So it came as a pleasant surprise to notice an organisation called USHAHIDI involved int he disaster response work in Haiti. Ushahidi had developed a system allowing people to use the mobile phones they already had to send short report to a preset number. They could report such things as medical emergencies, fires, rioting, property loss etc. and include the location. This was then collated (initially manually but now automated) and put ona map. Once processed this collated information was then used successfully to coordinate aid-efforts.
The Ushahidi platform has since developed further and has used technology that is now common, but which was unknown when I started thinking about this back in 2004, such as FourSquare, Gowalla etc to create “checkins with a purpose”. It has grown to a system where you can checkin in a way similar to how you would use Foursquare and include relevant information and this would then be processed by the back-end as mentioned above and used in further planning. It is fascinating to see that there is a lot of common thinking even though I have no direct involvement with Ushahidi. Check out this ForaTV video and fast forward to chapter 6.