Haiti: The Role of Social Networks and Open Data in Crisis Response

Last week, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti ravaging the country’s capital Port-au-Prince. The International Red Cross is estimating that at least three million people were impacted by the quake, with Haitian government officials citing that up to 200,000 people have been killed. Major infrastructure damage was also reported including the destruction of Parliament and the Presidential Palace.

The Internet community quickly rallied around this cause and provided an excellent case study of how social networks and open data can help in crisis response.

1) BREAKING NEWS: Up to the minute information flow



Within hours of the quake, Haiti was a trending word on Twitter and users in Haiti provided live coverage of the earthquake including sending pictures, and information about damaged areas. In addition, some users are using their twitter feed to provide the names and conditions of survivors and coordinating rescue efforts in saving people who were still trapped in the rubble.


On Facebook, over 250,000 people have joined a group called Earthquake Haiti. Members are using the social network to post pictures of missing family members, as well as exchanging information on how to locate survivors, donate money and  offer words of comfort and support.


The Haiti 2010 Wikipedia Page was created within seconds after the quake and according the HuffPost, the page has received over 168,000 pages views and lists over 106 article sources. Smart Phones have also allowed Haitians to upload footage of the wreckage to sites such as Youtube, Vimeo and other video sharing sites. The day after the earthquake, over 4,000 Haiti related videos were uploaded to Youtube.

2) Coordinated Donation Efforts: Viral Advertising + Easy Call to Action

In addition to quickly disseminating information about the unfolding crisis, social media also provided a powerful platform to let people know how they could help. Users quickly shared information about fundraising campaigns and directed people to links where they could easily donate funds.

The American Red Cross launched an SMS  campaign enabling people to donate $10 right from their cell phones. The campaign proved immensely successful and raised a record $7 million within the first 24 hours.   In Canada, the Canadian Red Cross reported over $15.4 million in donations, with 85% of donations coming in online.

I don’t think it was just the increase of information available, but the fact that we were witnessing this disaster unfold through the eyes of those living it that made such an impact. The human element combined with an easy call to action made it simple and intuitive for those who wanted to help.

3) The Tech Community and Global Disaster Relief

Both Google and Facebook launched in Disaster Relief pages.



Facebook recently launched their Disaster Relief Page. According to the official Facebook blog this page is for:

“…the more than 350 million people on Facebook can educate themselves and find out how to help not only in Haiti but wherever disaster and misfortune may strike.

Every minute, people have been posting more than 1,500 status updates on Facebook that contained the word “Haiti.” People have contributed thousands of dollars through the Causes application on Facebook, and groups including the American Red Cross, Oxfam America and Partners in Health have mobilized supporters through their Facebook Pages and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last 24 hours alone.”

Currently, the group has over 100,000 members and the Causes features has raised over $95,000 to date.


The search engine giant has also created a Disaster Relief page that allows people to easily donate and stay up to speed on breaking events as they unfold. In addition to donating one million dollars to the cause they are also offering free phone calls to Haiti via Google Voice.

Most interestingly, they have released a new data layer for Google Earth that allows users to see satellite images of Haiti post-quake. They have made this feature available via plugin, which you can get here. Users are encouraged to upload any information, pictures or footage and tag it through their Google Map Maker feature.

4) The Need for Open Data


Many news organizations have created “Peoplefinder” sites, a way to enable people to find information about missing family members. Boingboing published an open letter from Christopher Csikszentmihalyi, Director of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, on how to make these initiatives more effective by opening their data:

“In the response to the earthquake in Haiti, many organizations worked to create 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, and each site is a silo.

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. Data from the google site is currently available as “dumps” in the standard PFIF format (on this page), and an API is being developed, and licensed through Creative Commons. 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.”

Ultimately, creating data silos will not do anyone any good. We need to have open and transparent data that can be easily accessed and shared by various NGOs, governments and other interested parties who (like Google) can use it to create applications that can help and add value in a time of crisis. The New York Times has already indicated it would make it’s data available to Google and I hope more news organizations will follow suit.

While still in its infancy, I am happy to see that social media is creating opportunities for large groups of people to quickly share information and mobilize in support of those who are in need.

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