Posts Tagged ‘haiti’

Below is the video of I talk I gave recently at the Dublin Ignite event. If anyone is wondering why I speak so fast then look up the concept of Ignite events.

Time Rubicon is one of the great volunteer organisations that grew out of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and that have developed into organisations providing expert care & assistance. They are a clear example of how a grassroots approach can work better than the large lumbering NGO’s. In the following video they talk about their work in Haiti as well as their motivations. Their motivations are very much the same ones as those that drove me to founding  Haiti Connect. Watch and learn:

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.

It is a blessing that in general one only comes across a company that is a complete and utter failure in customer relations on a few rare occasions during one’s lifetime.

Now seems to one of those moments for me.

let me explain; last year I flew with Continental Airlines from Shannon (Ireland) to Fort Lauderdale (USA) on my way to do charity work in Haiti. I obviously also flew back with them three weeks later. No big issues during the flight. However when I unpacked my luggage the next day I noticed that several items were missing from it. Most notable was my missing netbook. A few smaller items were also missing. All had obviously been stolen from my luggage while it was being transported by Continental Airlines from Florida to Ireland. After I was finished having a big hissy fir over this I pulled up the Continental Airlines website to see if they could advice me on what action to take. There were no clear instructions so I decided to email them. Oh by the way Continental, your website is a user nightmare. I listed what flights I was on, dates, times and missing contents, I hit sent and waited, and waited and waited…..

I’ll keep it brief-ish but it took 6 months and a lot of chasing up from my side until they issued me with a travel certificate for $2000 as compensation. Which was great but I had no plans to travel any time soon and as we needed more funds for our charity work in Haiti I decided that it might be worth selling the voucher and using the proceeds in Haiti. So I put a message up on twitter offering “1 Continental Airlines Travel Voucher” up for sale. I got a few replies but then someone pointed out to me that the voucher was non-transferable. Strange but hey rules are rules. So I withdrew it from sale. I also called Continental Airlines customer service to check this and was told that yes indeed I could not sell it but as I still had the voucher and it was obviously not sold it was still valid. I even gave the person on the other end of the phone the certificate number and she confirmed that it was still valid.

Roll on 3 weeks ago. I had decided that I was going to go back to Haiti to do a few more weeks of work to kick of a few new rebuilding & development projects there. As I still had the Continental Airlines voucher it was logical that I would fly with them. So I went online and booked the flight with no problems. Or so I thought. My booking was accepted and I received a confirmation email. However three days later I received an email notifying me that the voucher had been voided and that I could not use it to pay for this flight.

I contacted Continentals customer service department for clarification but all they could tell me was that the voucher had been voided in November 2010. For further details I had to email their “Corporate Security” department. I duly sent of an email to request clarification and several days passed by before I received a reply. The reply was 2 lines long:

Last November you attempted to sell your ETC on twitter. The terms and conditions clearly state that any sale or attempt to sell will result in the ETC being void.

The ETC will not be reinstated.

Ignoring the T&C’s for a moment this reply is not exactly a great display of social skills or an awareness of customer service principles. I obviously didn’t accept this and have been emailing with Continental Airlines on a daily basis for the last two weeks. That means really that i email them every day but that Continental might reply once every 5-6 days. I have outlines how I obviously haven’t sold the voucher, how I checked last year after I withdrew the voucher from sales and was told it was still valid, how they cannot reasonably enforce legislation like this on something that is compensation for items stolen from my luggage while it was in the custody of Continental Airlines.
All to no avail so far. After I brought this situation to the attention of a few other people in Continental Airlines I received an email stating that they were willing to reinstate the voucher to the cost of the ticket I had booked ($625). As this was less that 1/3 of the original value I replied and called the offer not acceptable.
Oddly enough within 10 minutes of them making the above offer I also received a notification that they had tried to retract the email containing the offer. Strange.
Anyway, their reply to my refusal was short, even shorter than their previous emails:

We will not be reinstating the voucher

At that point I was just too busy with preparations for my trip and needed to just have a flight booked so I emailed that in light of this time pressure I was willing to accept their original offer (of covering the cost of just one return ticket). Within 12 hours I received the following reply:

Once you declined and threatened legal action, the offer ceased to be available.

The above is not a quote from the email, it is the actual whole content of the email.
At this stage I am really wondering if I am emailing with a big mainframe computer spitting out answers. “Computer says no” comes to mind. It takes Continental Airlines 6 months to settle a simple claim for items stolen while in their custody, they then void said compensation on an argument of questionable legal validity and what most infuriating; their emails are typed by someone possessing the social skills of a brick.
I also find it “interesting” that they managed to pick up the one tweet offering the voucher for sale but the @continental twitter account has so far failed to reply to at least 2 dozen tweets that I have sent them in the last 3 weeks. It clearly shows where their priorities lie. Same for their Facebook page. Lots of messages but no replies. Continental obviously does not give a damn about its customers.
Because I am under time pressure I am now forced to pay for a ticket. This is $700 odd that I won’t be able to spend on aid projects in Haiti. Way to go Continental Airlines! I obviously will not be flying continental.
Lastly this game is not over. I will not let this rest until Continental Airlines comes up with an acceptable offer. Until such time I will make this issue as public as possible as well as taking the applicable legal steps. In the long run this will cost Continental Airlines a lot more than the cost of a $2000 travel voucher. The choice is theirs.

For some time now I have been saying that the current situation in Haiti could lead to a disaster of a a similar or even larger scale than the January 2010 earthquake. More than 6 months after the quake and with billions of dollars pledged in aid there are still over 1 million people living in tents and under sheets of plastic. These temporary housing solutions are already falling apart and will certainly *not* withstand the current storms or the upcoming hurricane season. Already every heavy rainstorm is leading to drownings. In addition to that there are the derivative effects of disease, violence etc flowing out of the current living conditions. What is needed is permanent, sustainable accommodation. I can not emphasise enough how much ongoing targeted support is needed in this country.  While Haiti Connect ( a charity I run) does not provide or build housing (it’s not our area of expertise) I try to support every effort to create sustainable housing as much as I can.

The following video will illustrate what the conditions are like better:

I recently blogged about the criticism I was coming under from a small group of people related to my work with Haiti Connect a charity which I founded that is providing aid and assisting in the rebuilding efforts in Haiti. Initially the criticism focussed on whether or not our aid was needed and if Haiti Connect would be able to deliver. The small band of detractors repeatedly and publically questioned the need for improved internet access and communications and also stated that I (through Haiti Connect) would never be able to deliver on this promise or that we never even would make it to Haiti.

It’s obvious to say that they were proven wrong. Still, a free-lance journalist working for the Irish Mail on Sunday decided to write an article about me. He emailed me a list of questions putting forward that he was pursuing this in the public interest. I replied to him answering each separate question concisely and truthfully. However my answers must not have suited his agenda as he completely ignored them and did what could be largely considered a copy and paste job using the few criticizing blogposts as his “source material“. This was obvious because he repeated verbatim the same wrongful assumptions and accusations as made in these blogs. However he also tried to discredit me personally by referring to unpaid debts and also attacked one of my companies by questioning the truth of information on the company’s website. None of this had anything whatsoever to do with Haiti Connect and/or its work. Still it got smeared all over the pages of a national newspaper causing a lot of personal stress for myself and my family.The gossip mill went into overdrive leading to the bank that Haiti Connect was banking with closing the account and so-called friends turning their backs on us. It even lead to our kids being pestered by some classmates because “your dad is a crook”. Now personally I will take anyone on but when this affect my kids and wife in an unfair way it has gone too far. Way too far.

I did not take this lying down and filed a complaint with the editor of the Mail on Sunday. Not surprisingly he dismissed my claim. Below is a quote from his reply:

I refer to your e-mail of June 1. The article published on May 9 was factual and balanced and indeed was largely based on your own words – either in response to our reporter’s questions or comments you had posted on Twitter or on your blog. We fully stand over the story. Furthermore, we believe you were given adequate right of reply at the time of publication. I must therefore inform you that we cannot accede to your request that we publish a retraction and an apology.

Following this I lodged a detailed complaint with the Press Ombudsman and today I received notice from them that they have taken this complaint up with the editor of the Irish Mail on Sunday as part of their mediation process. More about this soon.

PART II.

I must have stepped on someone toes by lodging these complaints as last week I received another email from the same free-lance hack working for the Irish Mail on Sunday. This time there were no questions about Haiti Connect or it’s work, instead it contained a range of questions based around the previously referred to debt. His line was that because of these debts I should not be soliciting public donations as I “obviously” could not be trusted. He also referred that Haiti Connect was not a “registered charity”. As he had previously ignored my detailed answers to all his questions and as he had clearly no intention in writing a balanced article I decided not to reply to his email. He followed this with two more emails which I also ignored. Next were two phone calls, conveniently made from a “hidden number”. I actually answered one but told him I had nothing to say to him and hung up. He called back and left a voicemail stating that “they would be printing another article next Sunday and that I had been given sufficient time to reply”. Like before I ignored this. Next followed a series of public tweets aimed at me outlining some of the nonsense & lies that he intended to write.

Now I might be a bit sensitive but this crossed over into harassment in my opinion. His article has no news value, does not contribute to “the greater good” and only does harm. To me, my wife, my children and to Haiti Connects work helping people in need. In short it’s a piece of shit.

But as he seems intent to publish it I will use this platform to tell me side of the story, the truth if you want it;

Yes, the judgments are real. They are the results of debt incurred through my involvement with a start-up venture in 2005. I was employed by this company as their CEO. The company was a US registered entity listed with the SEC. The company had ambitious but realistic plans and relied for its funding on the public sale of equity. I was hired by one of the main investors who was also in charge of raising funding. I set up a trading entity in Ireland and worked on developing the company. Obviously, as with any start-up, there was need for a few small lines of credit. These were applied and granted. However as the companies CEO I was asked to guarantee these loans. As we had just moved back to Ireland I also got some loans to cover the costs of setting up home in Ireland. After all I was on a good salary and the future was looking bright. However that situation changed. Because the company was founded and registered in the US and most of its investors were in the US we felt the first tremors of the impending economic crisis very early. Earlier than most people in Ireland. Funding basically dried up and we were not able to progress along the chosen path. As I had faith in the venture I kept working away without getting paid but by the end of 2006 I had used up all our personal financial reserves and ran up a credit card bill as well. Time to move on. (note: the company is still in existence but on the backburner until the economic climate improves). However as I had received no income for close on a year there was no way I could repay all the outstanding loans. Apart from that there was a dispute about alledged personal guarantees. One of the debts resulted in a recent judgment referred to in the article

So I did what I was taught to do; I picked myself up and started anew. Nothing like hitting rock bottom to teach you how *not* to do something. We are now 4-5 years on and I am absolutely astounded that these old debts are being put forward as a reason why I should not be allowed raise funds for a charity. Does failing make me evil? A bad man? Someone to be avoided like the plague?

It’s even more astounding considering the current global economic situation. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs in Ireland. Business small and large are failing every day. People with humongous mortgages are 100’s of thousands of euro in negative equity. The world has turned into an economic and financial disaster zone and in that climate my 39,000 euro debt is being measured on a yardstick to show that I am not to be trusted?!

Why is it in this country that failure is seen as a disaster and people who fail at business are encouraged to crawl under a rock or are expected to be cast aside as the flotsam of society? How do we ever expect to recover from this recession if people are only given one shot at success and are treated like lepers if they fail? We should stimulate entrepreneurial resilience (within reason) and allow people to learn from failure.

In the words of Malcom S. Forbes: “Failure is success if we learn from it.”

On to his next “accusation”; he alleges that Haiti Connect is not a charity. What does he refer to? What exactly is this thing called a “charity”?  Dictionary.com shows this definition:

1.generous actions or donations to aid the poor, ill, or helpless: to devote one’s life to charity.
I would say Haiti Connect fits that bill.
Now lets look at the legal framework for registering a charity in Ireland. Ooops, there isn’t one. What?! Yes, that’s right there is *NO* legal framework for establishing a charity in Ireland. Let me quote from the Revenue Commissioners website:

There is no legal framework for the registration of charities in Ireland. The Office of the Revenue Commissioners, Charities Section maintains a database of organisations to which they have granted charitable tax exemption. In granting tax exemption Charities Section give the body a CHY reference number. The full list of bodies granted exemption is published on the Revenue Commissioners website.

It’s a common mistake made by people who are not familiar with this process. The Revenue Commissioners maintains a database of organisations which carry out charitable work and which qualify for tax-exemption on that basis. Haiti Connect has applied for this status and our application is currently being processed. As it’s the first point listed on Haiti Connects FAQ page I am amazed that this guy during all his “thorough” research missed this. If I was to write a newspaper article accusing someone of being untrustworthy thereby causing him and his family significant stress I would make sure that I did my research and got my facts straight. But maybe I am setting to high a standard by expecting morals and common decency.

So now you have the full story. Time to turn the tables. What kind of person would write an article like this? Well to get an answer to that question we only need to look at some of his previous “work”. Thanks to this guys intrepid work we now know that Shell to Sea campaigners were planning a guerilla war and that Eircom has hired staff with the specific purpose to intimidate people on Twitter. I will let you make up your own mind after reading that.

In regards to the article on Haiti Connect and the supposed follow-up I have clearly stepped on his toes by publically criticizing him and he is running a personal vendetta against me using a national newspaper as his platform. His rantings serve no purpose whatsoever, there is no news in them, they do not serve any public purpose and any imaginable result is only negative. The results so far are that I have lost income, some people who we thought were friends have turned their backs on it (but we have also gained new ones) and that the emotional stress is taking a huge toll on my family. Interestingly enough Haiti Connects activities haven’t really suffered, most of our initial material sponsors have since donated or pledged further equipment, we have expanded the scope of the project into the areas of e-learning and telemedicine and we are receiving significant support from some quite formidable people. However if this continues and the emotional stress on my family increases I don’t know if it would be fair on them to continue this work. Personally I will take any shit thrown at me for work that I consider right and I will fight to the bitter end to defend my actions. However I can not stand seeing my family and my wife suffer because of this. Especially when she has already been extremely supportive (part of the money we put into Haiti Connect was earmarked to pay for her college fees).

In short I need this nonsense to stop. Can you help me? You can indeed. While I have received a lot of private messages of support I need people to speak out publicly and condemn this nonsense. Blog about it, tweet about it, or email the editor of the Irish Mail on Sunday objecting to the articles on Haiti Connect and myself. Make known that this malicious nonsense should not be accepted any further because as long as it nobody is imune from it…

One of the “activities” that is taking up lots of my time for the last few months is fundraising for “Haiti Connect“. I try to create a buzz around the charities work in order to increase public awareness in the hope that this will lead to donations. I also “knock on doors” in a manner of speaking. One of the doors I knocked on yesterday belonged to Annie West aka @anniewestdotcom a delightful, witty and entertaining person that is one of my twitter-friends. Annie is a illustrator, cartoonist and artiste-extra-ordinaire. She’s also as mad as a hatter 😉

Anyway, Annie has done a great thing and offered her cut from the sale of one of her prints as a donation to Haiti Connect! I really appreciate this support and felt it needed a bit of public attention.

The print she has offered for this is:

For those of you who would want to see (and maybe buy) this print I suggest that you hurry yourself to Gallery Zozimus on 56, Francis st, Dublin 8. Annie exhibition there opens tonight (May 5th) and is opened by Ryan Tubridy himself. If you really, urgently want to ensure that you are the buyer you can also contact the gallery by phone on: (01) 4539057