February 16, 2010

Helping Haitians via mobile, crowdsourcing & social media

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New platform revolutionizes the way emergency response takes place

Guest post by Katrina Heppler

Bravo to the thousands of volunteers worldwide who are assisting with translating Creole mobile text messages to help people in Haiti following the devastating 7.0M earthquake that struck the nation Jan. 12.

You may not have heard of Mission 4636, but this is where a lot of the most remarkable relief work is taking place. Mission 4636 is a short code emergency response communication system that enables earthquake victims in Haiti to get life-saving aid by sending a free mobile text message. It’s a joint-project of Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS, CrowdFlower and Samasource.

Mission 4636 — named for one of the SMS short codes for Haiti relief efforts — is an outstanding example of global collaboration and the power of human ingenuity to help people and save lives through technology. A huge “hats off” to them as well as to the many organizations that have also come together to make Mission 4636 successful: inSTEDD, DigiCel, local radio networks, local NGOs and the many emergency responders.

In the video interview above, Brian Herbert of Ushahidi, Robert Munro of FrontlineSMS, Lukas Biewald of CrowdFlower and Leila Janah of Samasource share background on how they came together with the support of other organizations on the ground in Haiti to deploy a critical emergency communications system to help save lives and provide emergency resources to people following the earthquake. This is a massive effort across multiple non-profit and for-profit companies and individual volunteers from around the country and globe (more than 14 countries have been involved in translation).


In the weeks after the tragedy, text messages to the dedicated Haiti emergency short code 4636 increased about 10 percent each day – with about one text a second coming through. Technology and people power are playing a critical role in getting information to military and aid workers on the ground. Beyond the immediate help for people in need in Haiti, the program will build computer centers so Haitian refugees can do valuable digital work, get paid, and bolster the economy around them.

Transcript of our interviews

Here’s a transcript of my talk with each of the participants:

Interview with Brian Herbert: Web developer | Ushahidi

Katrina: What is your role and what is Ushahidi?

Brian: Ushahidi is a platform that allows anyone to crowdsource crisis information, or crowdsource anything really, using a mobile phone.

Katrina: How does Mission 4636 work?

Brian: What happens is that someone on the ground in Haiti will send in a text message of their location and their needs to “4636″ that populates a queue that is mostly all Creole messages that we can’t read because we speak English. The volunteers will take the messages, they’ll translate them, add any additional notes and categorize them. And when it goes to Ushahidi, we have some volunteers at Tufts University and they do a little bit more in-depth research into each message and we pass it on to the Coast Guard or Southern Command, and they’ll do emergency response.

Katrina: How did the collaboration come together so quickly between FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, Samasource and CrowdFlower?

Brian: After the earthquake hit, Josh Nesbit of FrontlineSMS came to us with the opportunity to use a short code to collect this information to be put into Ushahidi. But the only problem was that everything was in Creole so we had to get everything translated.

So from that point we had to develop some software which is before CrowdFlower and Samasource came along. We started translating the messages that we’re coming in and sending them to Ushahidi and inSTEDD with the Thomson Reuters Foundation using the Emergency Information Service.

Katrina: I understand that a lot of the cell networks were down, right? Originally. So how did you get the word out that this service existed? How did you let people know to call or text message “4636″?

Brian: In the very beginning, Nicoletti Tata with inSTEDD was actually on the ground at Port au Prince airport. And he was able to go out to various radio stations and have them broadcast the number to have people text in their location and needs. And that’s how we’ve been doing it so far: through the radio channels. And also through the diaspora here in the United States and Canada they’re letting their friends and family know.


Interview #2 with Robert Munro: Translation Volunteer Coordinator | FrontlineSMS

Robert: So my role right now is coordinating all the translators who are reading every single messsage as they come in, translating them, geo-coding them, and then passing them on to the teams that coordinate the emergency response.

Katrina: Why did you look to crowdsourcing as a way to translate messages?

Robert: So with FrontlineSMS, we’re looking at ways to automate the processing of messages but this is not easy when you get a lot of variation as you do in Creole between spellings. So we had to make the decision very early on to crowdsource rather than automate the process.

Katrina: How did you partner with Samasource to assist with this crowdsourcing effort?

Robert: Samasource wasn’t onboard early on. We just managed to find all our volunteers through connections with different social networks. It was very viral – the volunteers themselves took it upon themselves to make known that this effort was going on and spread the word.

Katrina: How are you partnering with Samasource and CrowdFlower?

Robert: CrowdFlower and Samasource have been partnering for some time. Samasource had already been training a team of about 100 people in Haiti for micro-tasking. So, the opportunity to move away from volunteers to relying on paid workers in country, creating jobs and adding local knowledge to the further evolution of this project has been a wonderful process.

Katrina: What has been the biggest success of Mission 4636?

Robert: I think the biggest success has been the way that people from all around the world have been able to come together and make a very real-time difference at a very remote location in the world, saving people’s lives.

Katrina: So, in addition to the technology of the platform you’re using to power Mission 4636, you’re also taking advantage of social media and social networking, and perhaps other tools where people are able to find out about volunteer opportunities through Mission 4636. Are people using Twitter, Facebook, things like that?

Robert: They’re using both and Facebook has been great. Certainly, the ability to connect to people remotely and put out messages like this has been instrumental in getting many volunteers involved.

CrowdFlower and Samasource

Interview #3 with: Lukas Biewald: Founder | CrowdFlower Leila Janah: Founder | Samasource

Katrina: What’s next for Mission 4636?

Leila: The project started off with volunteer translators from around the world. And Samasource specializes in providing digital work opportunities for the people who need them most. So we thought it would be amazing if we could get Haitians who are on the ground and affected by the earthquake and who have lost their livelihoods to earn money by doing these translations.

And so we had actually accepted a partner organization called “1000 Jobs Haiti,” which is affiliated with Paul Farmer’s group, Partners in Health, about 20 minutes before the earthquake happened. And right afterwards they told us that people in Haiti need jobs now more than ever. And there have been people fleeing Port au Prince and arriving in neighboring towns like Mirabelle where our partner is based with no livelihood and no future job prospects.

Jobs are really at the core of rebuilding Haiti. And as tragic as the earthquake was, it’s really exciting that we can use this as an opportunity to create jobs. So we’re shipping netbooks – 20 netbooks I think are scheduled to arrive in Port au Prince next week and we’ll have Internet access running in Mirabelle the following week and between 15 and 20 paid Haitian translators working on “Mission 4636″ text messages as their first contract before the month is over. And we hope to be able to transition them to other kinds of digital work after that.

Katrina: What is the business model for this? Is the State Department or who is supporting this initiative?

Leila: Well a number of aid organizations actually need this information and it’s really costly for them to send their people out on the ground looking for disaster victims, so I think this system makes relief much more efficient. And so perhaps some of the money that would have been allocated to having extra people in the field to deal with this can now be allocated to paying for this translation. And in the future this might be a model that governments can fund for 911 or similar emergency response services.

Katrina: That’s amazing. So this platform is completely revolutionizing the way that emergency response takes place, first of all, and with rebuilding efforts. I can’t imagine with previous natural disasters it didn’t seem like there was a really quick way, a communications systems in place to respond as quickly. And you’ve demonstrated with your partnerships that that’s possible. How do you see future emergency response delivery?

Lukas: You know, I had never thought of this application of our technology, and it feels really good. It feels like a natural use of our routing and our quality control and our task-doing software. It’s a great application, and we’d love to see it used for something that saves lives.

Leila: And likewise, this is a really exciting application of paid crowdsourcing. You know, having the crowd be Samasource workers is really exciting for us. And the workers needn’t be in the same location as the disaster. In this case it happens to be really useful because Haitian Creole is not really spoken outside of the Haitian community. But one can imagine other situations where the disaster response is crowdsourced, and maybe the crowd is some combination of people in-country and out-of-country in order to get the fastest results.

Lukas: Yeah, there’s something really powerful about imagining that a disadvantaged person in the Congo, for example, could help someone in Haiti. I mean we obviously haven’t gotten to the point where that’s something that’s set up yet, but there’s something that feels really amazing about that.

Katrina: Is there anything else you’d like to add? Any parting thoughts that you’d like to share?

Leila: I really think this whole project is not just an example of the power of crowdsourcing to be manifested in new ways like in disaster response, but also the power of social media and the new technology we have. I mean, between Skype and Twitter and Google Documents, we’ve been able to collaborate with people that I’ve never met in person, and I think Lukas has just met a tiny fraction of them in person. And that would never have been possible even just a couple of years ago.

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