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Haiti: where is social media in disaster response?

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Social media in disaster response

Yes, where were we?  Social media was in Iran .  .  .   but not Haiti.  Or did I miss something?

This week, I listened to a very good “post mortem” on our response to the earthquake in Haiti.  A surgeon had mobilized an entire team, got funding for a plane and then discovered the realities on the ground.  First, they were diverted to the Dominican Republic. Then they found conditions in Haiti very different to what they imagined.

These were my three takeaways.

#1  Western professionals are very accustomed to have a system around them that they forget that someone has to organize the lights, the water, the diesel, the cleaning.  In other word, the system in the west has become so taken for granted that it is invisible.

#2 The doctors lamented that no one seemed to take charge and coordinate.  There seemed not even to be a map (though there might have been) to help first responders see where different services were located.  It’s not enough for us to each take the initiative, even if our initiative is breathtaking in its brilliance.  We must have a way of coordinating ourselves.

#3  The doctors didn’t mention social media.  It is likely that cell phone towers were destroyed by the quake. But where was the social media response?  Don’t we have the capacity to move in with temporary towers?  What kind of dashboards are up-and-ready to go?  Do the Red Cross, UN and Medicins sans Frontiers, etc have social media packages ready to roll?

Does anyone know?  Who is working on social media in disaster response?

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Published in SOCIAL MEDIA & IT


  1. I live in post-industrial Detroit.

    What the heck is a ‘dashboard’ and who the heck has a mobile tower laying around in their backyard? If these things aren’t available here, what makes you think they are available in Haiti?

    Your point about taking things for granted is well-founded. You have taken it for granted that one of the poorest countries in this hemisphere would have the technical capacity of one of the wealthiest. That stuff isn’t in Detroit. It isn’t in Haiti, either.

    In Detroit, we would look for federal help. In Haiti, they look to die.

  2. Jo Jordan Jo Jordan

    Well that is one question answered – a dashboard, like the one on your car, consolidates all the data you need on one screen and updates in as close to realtime as possible.

    We have international disaster response to help each other out. I just find it interesting that we haven’t developed the social media systems to fly into a disaster area. Those should be the first to go in. An in this case, with facilities going straight to the palace or what was left of it.

    Social media did help out in Katrina – but through big companies who used their initiative who collaborated with the Red Cross. We need social media on the ground and we need to be ready. It’s bizarre that such a powerful technology is not “ready to go”. Academics research it but where is it?

  3. It seems like social media has made a huge impact on the response in Haiti to date. It may have taken a little awhile to gain acceptance by a majority of the first responders (like doctors and search & rescue teams) but the relief and recovery actors seem to have benefited from it substantially.

    One example has been the use of tools like Ushahidi and OpenStreetMap. Our organization used OpenStreetMap to update our Garmins in the field and give us a much better idea of how to navigate around Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas as well as verify the levels of damage in certain neighborhoods. There’s a link on OSM’s wiki that shows the media coverage they’ve gotten on their project (

    The impact of Twitter has also been very important from a public awareness and fundraising perspective. However, as you’ve pointed out Jo there isn’t necessarily an official leader or organizer of these tools. Perhaps the UN could push for this type of leadership to come from one of the humanitarian clusters like Early Recovery or Emergency Telecommunications. I haven’t been involved in those clusters enough to know if they have addressed this topic before.

  4. Media also needs a professional message from someone who understands the process.

    See the UK Shelterbox history and conclusions

    Social media has yet to develop assessment of quality and grasping who’s the captain- the management models for crisis.

    We are so used to democratic models when we have all the time for committees, workgroups and discussions and every opinion is valued.

    How to determine those, who can actually put out the fire and lead the people while doing this, and listen to their directions ?

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