New Tech Tools Aid Those in Need

Hundreds of tech volunteers spurred to action by Haiti’s killer quake are adding a new dimension to disaster relief, developing new tools and services for first responders and the public in an unprecedented effort.

Techies are gathering in person and online to collaborate on the development of new systems to support rescuers and relief workers on the ground in Haiti, and to provide victims with ways to communicate their needs and connect with one another. Among the projects: new maps of the disaster areas, a central missing persons finder and a text-messaging system for calls for help.

Tim Schwartz, a 28-year-old artist and programmer in San Diego, quickly emailed “all the developers I’d ever worked with.” In a few hours, he and 10 others had built, an online lost-and-found to help Haitians in and out of the country locate missing relatives. The database, which anyone can update, was online less than 24 hours after the quake struck with more than 6,000 entries. The New York Times, Miami Herald, CNN and others launched similar efforts. Two days later, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) had a similar tool running, PersonFinder.

Text-Messaging for Help

Another volunteer project forged in the quake’s aftermath is a cellphone text-messaging system that has helped the UN, Red Cross and other relief groups dispatch rescuers, food and water. Haitians needing help can send free text messages from phones on the nation’s Digicel and Comcel networks to the number 4636.

Chief executive Eric Rasmussen of InSTEDD, a small humanitarian nonprofit that helped develop it, said that UN search-and-rescue dispatchers were mobilizing to locate a woman eight months pregnant in distress with an infection who had sent an SOS message using the system.

New Maps

In another collaborative effort, the OpenStreetMap “crisis mapping” project, updates important information such as the location of new field hospitals and downed bridges onto post-quake satellite imagery that companies have made freely available. The digital cartography has helped aid workers speed food, water and medicine to where it’s needed most.

Organizing Workers

Internet social networks have helped volunteers organize intense work sessions. CrisisCamp drew some 400 people in six cities including Washington, London and Mountain View, C.A., over the weekend to meet-ups where they devised, built and helped refine tools. Among them: a basic Creole-English dictionary for the iPhone that was delivered to Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) on Monday night for its approval.

Johnson also is the coordinator for “We Have, We Need,” a project that was hatched in the CrisisCamp session and is about to be launched. It seeks to pair private-sector offers with needs identified by aid workers. For example, a Haitian Internet provider needs networking engineers to restore connectivity. Any volunteers willing to spend a few weeks in Port-au-Prince?

More CrisisCamps have been planned in Northern California, Miami, Atlanta, Washington, Atlanta, Brooklyn, N.Y., Seattle, Portland, O.R., and Los Angeles.

“It really is amazing the change in the way crisis response can be done now,” said Noel Dickover, a Washington, D.C.-based organizer of the CrisisCamp tech volunteer movement.



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