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A man walks at a makeshift refugee camp in Port-au-Prince January 19, 2010. (JORGE SILVA/REUTERS)
A man walks at a makeshift refugee camp in Port-au-Prince January 19, 2010. (JORGE SILVA/REUTERS)

Globe on Technology

Disaster relief, v2.0 Add to ...

In a sense, Haiti's tragic earthquake is a sort of Disaster 2.0, with new technology and telecom companies playing a unique and constructive role in the recovery.

Text message donations, which have sent millions of dollars to various charities, have gotten the limelight. But there are other, even more technically obscure, ways to help.

Sites such as The Extraordinaries are encouraging plugged-in, smart phone-using Samaritans to volunteer their urban downtime to altruistic but time-consuming tasks.

For the tragedy in Haiti, this involves tagging photos from streaming Flickr photo feeds for Port-au-Prince and its environs. One image of a couple and their baby, tagged yesterday, for example, read in part: people: yes, face: visible, alive: yes, baby, evacuated.

You can do it from your desktop PC, when you're bored. Or on your smart phone, while waiting for a streetcar, say.

It seems a little unusual and perhaps pointless, but imagine having family or relatives in Haiti that you can't contact by phone because of the island nation's strained cellular network. You go online to check photos, any photos, and get hit with a cacophony of thousands of gruesome images, from news organizations and aid workers and humanitarian organizations - many of them unlabeled or poorly captioned.

It's difficult to measure the impact of this type of micro-volunteerism, but its certainly true that not knowing can be debilitating. Helping tag photos may help bring tragic closure to someone's angst - or great relief. Either way, you've helped, though you may never know it.

Other groups are more direct. Télécoms Sans Frontières have erected mobile communications camps among the rubble: to let people call to their relatives and let them know they're okay. Catherine Sang, of TSF, told me that for many people in disaster zones, family is more important than food. The French non-governmental organization also lets aid workers co-ordinate efforts.

Text message donations, on the other hand, are sort of a mixed bag: although millions have come through the large wireless carriers, it's a bit unclear when these spur-of-the-moment, heartfelt donations will actually arrive, given the realities of cellular billing. Money could be delayed by months.

However, given the scope of devastation, the looming, long-term recovery effort, and the bottleneck at Port-au-Prince's airport, delaying donations might even be a good thing. And, regardless, the money should arrive at some point.

Indeed, charities who are part of the text-donating network receive daily tallies of the amounts donates through wireless carriers; so, even if they don't get the cash immediately, they know they can rely on those funds in the near future. Marc Choma, with the Canadian Wireless and Telecommunications Association, said people shouldn't be discouraged from text-donating because of a delay, given that humanitarian efforts could stretch for years.

"I don't think people are going to drop in somewhere to drop off a $5 bill," Mr. Choma said. "The charities are going to be counting on these donations over the coming months and years."

Of course, uncoordinated aid that does arrive -- or arrives in a bottleneck -- can be infuriating to both locals and aid workers. That's why, as I reported earlier, telecom-centric non-governmental organizations are among the first NGOs to arrive: helping other aid groups talk to each, to collaborate and be effective; and helping distraught, anxious Haitians to contact each other, either to reassure a relative in the U.S. or Canada (likely Montreal) that they're okay or to call into the rubble.

Telecom companies are also shipping in communications equipment. Ericsson, for example, is shipping in a self-contained cellular network --- a garden shed-like GSM container, which has the SIM cards of 5,000 donated cell phones programmed in. It will work almost instantly, once it gets into the country. As of Monday evening, it was sitting in a United Nations logistics base in Brindisi, Italy. Hopefully it's there by now.

These could all be specific examples of the increasingly professionalized world of foreign aid and development -- a world in which telecom technicians volunteering from transnational corporate entities are as sought after as warm-hearted school builders and well diggers.

But the appearance of micro-volunteerism gives some hope: that warm-hearted (albeit, plugged-in) layman anywhere can donate their amateur services.

Other groups are offering services --- like editing, web design, party-planning, and style consultation --- for a set, per-hour donation, which would then be matched by the government.

Follow on Twitter: @iainmarlow

 

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