It was Tuesday January 12, 2010, and the Haitian capital had just been hit with a massive earthquake.
Far away in Boston, Fletcher School Ph.D. candidate Patrick Meier was faced with a wrenching problem: his wife, also a Fletcher student, was in Port-au-Prince, and he couldn’t get in touch with her. “The anxiety was nearly paralyzing,” he said at a recent event at New America. “I needed to focus, to do something—anything.”
A specialist in so-called “liberation technologies,” Meier realized there was one thing he could do: create a crisis map of the disaster, mapping everything from CNN reports to tweets. The job of finding and geo-referencing news reports and social media postings soon became too big for him, and Meier reached out to friends at Fletcher and beyond to assist him.
By the following Saturday, Meier found himself commanding a nerve center of fellow volunteers—some there in person, others in touch via Internet—from his dorm room. Together, they were sorting and tagging Tweets using the Ushahidi mapping platform. They were also using Google Maps to support search and rescue efforts on the ground. Eventually, their efforts led to working with a Haitian telecom provider to launch an SMS help line service that could send messages directly into the group’s inbox.
Because many of the volunteers hailed from the Haitian diaspora abroad, Meier’s group was able to use high resolution satellite imagery to update the woefully out-of-date maps of Port-au-Prince on Open Street Maps.
The work that Meier and his group did accomplished more than helping him focus on “something else” while he waited to hear word from his wife (who was thankfully unharmed). They connected missing people with relief efforts on the ground. The United States Marine Corps commended them, with one contact claiming their crisis map was “saving lives every day.”
But after Haiti, the nerve center they had created was still active and wondering: What was next? With the assistance of the Internet and social media, volunteers in their own homes—dubbed by Meier as “Digital Jedis”—now appeared to have an important place in international disaster response. With this in mind, Meier founded the Digital Humanitarian Network, which serves as a middle-man between volunteer and technical networks, and the digital networks of volunteers who can assist them when disaster strikes.
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