When I try to wrap my head around the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for development, I usually don't get much further than "blogging" and "text messages." It was therefore enlightening to attend today's World Bank Institute  Keys to Innovation Discussion Series on "Developers for Development: Using Open Source Technology in Disaster Response and Beyond."  Five presenters from open source organizations introduced their projects. The relevance of those projects is painfully obvious in the aftermath of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.
CrisisCommons , Geo-Can , Ushahidi , Open Street Map , and Random Hacks of Kindness  all utilize open source programming and the expertise of a global pool of volunteer programmers, scientists, and technical experts to provide fast help in disaster areas. They all provide support in the aftermath of the Haiti disaster. CrisisCommons brought together programmers to develop applications that can help people on the ground to, for instance, find earthquake victims buried under rubble. Geo-Can uses high-resolution optical, thermal infra-red, topographic images to assess building damage. Ushahidi is a platform that was originally developed to report violence after the 2008 elections in Kenya. The program has now spread widely and is used in very different contexts such as election monitoring, reporting of corrupt behavior by officials, or tracking the stockouts of essential medicines in Eastern Africa. In Haiti it is used to track emergencies, threats, and logistics. Open Street Map is a map database that collects aerial and satellite imagery to prove up-to-date maps for relief operations in Haiti. Random Hacks of Kindness is a collaboration of Microsoft , Yahoo!, Google , the World Bank , and NASA where disaster relief experts and software engineers work together on technology solutions for disaster response.
Interestingly, the audience at today's event reacted somewhat sceptically. There still seems to be a strong hesitation to use ICTs for development purposes, even if they at this very moment help to save lives in Chile and Haiti. Considering the huge amount of expertise and data that can be bundled through ICTs - as all these projects show - it seems that the use of ICTs has gone beyond a niche idea. Imagine what ICTs can do in the context of climate change - mapping the loss of bio-diversity for instance, as discussant Michele de Nevers suggested. Or in the context of food distribution. Disaster risk management. Medical provisions. And so on. Many development organizations on the ground have made ICTs an integral part of their work, while others are still maintaining that they don't understand what this is all about and how it works. I'd say that if it helps dig out even just one child from under the rubble after an earthquake, it's worth finding out right now.
Picture: Screenshot from haiti.ushahidi.com