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One Year Later: ICT Lessons from the Haiti Earthquake

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

One year after the Haiti earthquake, the disaster response/development community is in a reflective mood. And well we should be: despite a massive cash influx in the wake of the disaster, the ongoing daily struggle for existence for many Haitians does not reflect well on the international community's attention span, coordination capabilities, and ability to respond in a sustained fashion to challenging and shifting local conditions. We can and should do better.

In the communication and ICT space, two new reports examine the lessons learned from Haiti (and elsewhere). The first, issued jointly by the ICT4Peace Foundation, the Berkman Center at Harvard, and Georgia Tech,  examines the lessons learned from Haiti (and elsewhere) regarding the role of ICTs in conflict prevention, peacebuilding, peacekeeping and crisis response. Titled "Peacebuilding in the Information Age: Sifting Hype from Reality," the report is primarily a loose collection of essays on broad themes. I was most interested in the "sifting hype from reality" aspect, but had to rummage around a bit to find it: unfortunately, the collection isn't organized to bring this issue to the fore. That said, there are certainly useful pieces of information in the report. For instance, according to one essay, early in the Haiti relief effort, there were multiple websites and other resources dedicated to finding missing persons. However, institutional reluctance by donor agencies and others to share common standards or resources led to data fragmentation and information silos; this, of course, meant duplicative and wasted effort. The authors conclude that pre-instituted information sharing policies and an emphasis on standards-based information capture and exchange by international relief agencies and others might help alleviate this issue.

The second report, entitled "Lessons from Haiti," is released by Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities (CDAC), with funding from the Knight Foundation and Internews. It focuses specifically and comprehensively on the communication space in Haiti after the disaster, pointing out innovations as well as lessons learned; I found it easy to navigate and understand. For instance, it notes that in Haiti, despite the successful deployment of crowdsourcing techniques, open source mapping, SMS and other resources, there are still tensions and a lack of common language between the volunteer-based, technology-focused community and the world of large international organizations. As one of the authors of the report notes, some organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, have strict rules of confidentiality (allowing it to play a useful role in conflict situations); however, this can be at odds with the culture of the open source community, which emphasizes spontaneity and transparency. The report also notes that older communication technology, such as radio, still has an important role to play in disaster and conflict response.

Taken together the reports provide an illuminating look at what the international community has learned - and still has to learn - about communication in conflicts, disasters and other crises. In particular, I found the final essay in the first report to be particularly thought-provoking. It chiefly makes the point that technology cannot be a solution in itself, bound inextricably as it is to political, social and economic processes; thus, we shouldn't be relying solely on technological fixes to political problems. The essay also specifically calls for, among other things, an examination of failures as well as successes. This seems a self-evident point, but truly, there's no built-in incentive (and in fact, many disincentives) for donor agencies and other large institutions to publicly examine failures. Yet without doing so, we will never really learn; and how can that possibly help the victims of the next Haiti?


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Photo Credit: Internews on Flickr

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