By Monica Hesse
Saturday, January 16, 2010; C09
Patrick Meier learned about the earthquakes at 7 p.m. Tuesday while he was watching the news in Boston. By 7:20, he'd contacted a colleague in Atlanta. By 7:40, the two were mobilizing an online tool created by a Kenyan lawyer in South Africa. By 8, they were gathering intelligence from everyplace, in a global effort to crowd-source assistance for Haiti.
The site is www.Ushahidi.com, and it allows users to submit eyewitness accounts or other relevant information for disaster zones via e-mail, text or Twitter -- and then visualize the frequency of these events on a map. By Friday, Ushahidi, which means "testimony" in Swahili, had received nearly 33,000 unique visitors, and several hundred personal reports that mainstream news organizations might not hear about.
"Chantal Landrin is stuck under the rubble at a house in Turjo!" one user submitted via Twitter.
"Please help me find my family in Haiti," begins another poster. The majority of Ushahidi's posts are from people -- many from the United States -- hoping to find information about missing relatives.
"Route 9 is access point into [Port-au-Prince] but still precarious," writes another, who has traveled the road.
Taken individually, these bits of data might not be terribly useful. The goal is that by aggregating the incidents in a visual format, people and organizations using the site will be able to see patterns of destruction, to determine where services should be concentrated. A red dot on the map, for example, signifies that looting is happening near a town called Pétionville; another shows that Hotel Villa Creole has become a site of medical triage.
The practice is known as crisis mapping, a newer field of disaster analysis using geography-based data sets, employed by organizations like Ushahidi and Arlington-based GeoCommons. Although individuals have used Twitter and Facebook to share anecdotes for a few years -- notably, during 2009's contested Iranian elections -- crisis mapping brings many data points together, making meaning out of randomness and spreading information about areas lacking well-developed records. "We're providing a repository for all kinds of organizations," says Meier, who in addition to working as Ushahidi's director of strategic operations also founded the International Network of Crisis Mappers.
Ushahidi was originally founded in 2008 to map reports of violence in post-election Kenya. Ory Okolloh, a lawyer, had been trying to keep track of these incidents via her personal blog, "but I got swamped by how much information was coming in," Okolloh says, "and I wanted to have a larger context of what was happening." She appealed to the blogosphere for help, and soon had a site that allowed the entire Kenyan population to catalogue the injustices and atrocities they were witnessing -- a real-time encyclopedia of unrest. Since then, the Ushahidi platform has been employed in many smaller projects, from monitoring elections in India to tracking medicine in various African countries.
"Stop the Stock-outs," as the medical project was known, involved volunteers swarming pharmacies to check the availability of common drugs and text their findings to be displayed on a map. In Kenya alone, more than 100 health centers were revealed to be operating without necessary medication, according to reports. The Kenyan government later allocated more funds for medication.
In Haiti, Meier says, it's too early to tell what impact Ushahidi might have on relief efforts.
Some of the rescue workers for whom Ushahidi was intended are currently too besieged by the chaos of the situation to attempt incorporating it into their work: "Our colleagues are not feeding information into crowdsourcing platforms for now," writes Florian Westphal of the International Committee of the Red Cross via e-mail. "I don't think they have the time."
Crisis mappers hope that their analytics will gain greater use in coming days, as rescue workers attempt to navigate the changed landscape.
"Being one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti doesn't have the infrastructure that a more developed country would have," such as extensive Global Positioning System equipment that would aid in mapping the terrain, says Andrew Turner, chief technology officer of GeoCommons, which has also been producing Haiti-related maps. "Now you have all of these people needing to know how to get from here to there. . . . You need to know where the triage centers are, and the food and water. An old map would be irrelevant with road closings."
The crowd-sourcing represents what Meier sees as the future of crisis response. "We're going to need to collaborate, we're going to need to share data," he says. "The best way to provide humanitarian response is to be able to provide platforms" and tools that allow people to share on-the-ground information quickly.
On Ushahidi, someone posts that the National Cathedral has collapsed, and the map gets another tiny dot of red.