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How Crisis Mapping Saved Lives in Haiti

To map the world, is to know it. To map the world live is to change it before it’s too late. The National Geographic Society has a long history of crisis mapping disasters. But what happened in Haiti on January 12, 2010 would forever change the very concept of a crisis map. A devastating earthquake...

To map the world, is to know it. To map the world live is to change it before it’s too late.

The National Geographic Society has a long history of crisis mapping disasters. But what happened in Haiti on January 12, 2010 would forever change the very concept of a crisis map. A devastating earthquake struck the country’s capital that Tuesday afternoon. I was overwhelmed with emotions when I heard the news just an hour later. Over 100,000 people were feared dead. Some very close friends of mine were doing research in Port-au-Prince at the time and I had no idea whether they had survived the earthquake. So I launched a live crisis map of Haiti. But this was an emotional reaction rather than a calculated plan with a detailed strategy. I was in shock and felt the need to do something, anything. It was only after midnight that I finally got an SMS reply from my friends. They had narrowly escaped a collapsing building. But many, many others were not near as lucky. I continued mapping.

Sourcing the Map

The Ushahidi Hait Map in the first 24 hours after the earthquake. Credit: Ushahidi Haiti Project (UHP).

This is what the map looked liked after midnight on January 13th. What was I mapping exactly? Tweets. I had found a dozen Haitians tweeting live from Port-au-Prince shortly after the earthquake. They were describing scenes of devastation but also hope as this tweet shows:

A tweet reporting that a drug store had reopened. Credit: Screenshot from Twitter.

I was using the Ushahidi platform, a free and open source mapping technology from Africa. Think of Ushahidi, which means “witness” in Swahili, as a multi-media inbox connected to a live map. I added these Twitter users to my inbox and began mapping the most urgent Tweets (those that had enough geographic information to be mapped). The following night, several friends joined me in the living room of my dorm to help map Haiti’s needs.

Volunteers to the Rescue

Volunteers at The Fletcher School in a living room at Blakeley Hall. Credit: Carol Waters.

But within a couple days, we couldn’t keep up with the vast amount of information being reported via both social media and mainstream media. So I reached out to friends at The Fletcher School (Tufts University) where I was doing my PhD. By the end of the week, we had trained over 100 graduate and undergraduate students on how to monitor social and mainstream media for relevant, mappable content. These “digital humanitarians” began to manually monitor hundreds and hundreds of online sources for information on Haiti almost 24/7. The Ushahidi Haiti Crisis Map became a live map with some 2,000 individual reports added during the entire project.

Close up of the Haiti Map. Each number represents the individual number of reports within the area. Users could zoom in further to see the individual reports. Credit: Ushahidi Haiti Project (UHP).

Using Satellite Imagery

But mapping this content became more and more challenging because Port-au-Prince was half missing on the the Google Map of Haiti. The city and roads had not been fully mapped by Google Inc. So some colleagues at OpenStreetMap crowdsourced the most detailed roadmap of Haiti ever produced in just a matter of days. They used satellite imagery provided by the World Bank to carefully trace the road network onto an OpenStreetMap of Haiti. In fact, hundreds of volunteers from all around the world collaborated in these efforts. The following video is an animation of this tracing in action. Over 1.4 million edits/traces (flashes of light in the video) were made to the map in just a matter of weeks.

Crowdsourcing via SMS

Just hours after launching the crisis map, we also set up an international SMS number that members of the Haitian Diaspora could text important reports for us to map. The next day, my colleague Josh Nesbit from Medic Mobile started looking for local SMS options to support our Ushahidi Haiti Project:

Credit: Screenshot from Twitter.

Incredibly, someone following his Twitter feed in Cameroon put him in touch with a colleague who was working at Digicel, the largest telecommunications company in Haiti. Within days, we had secured a toll-free SMS number (4636) that allowed anyone in Haiti to text in their most urgent needs and location. This was made possible thanks to multiple groups: Thomson-Reuters Foundation, InSTEDD, US State Department and of course Digicel. In the days that followed, colleagues in Port-au-Prince got the word out about this SMS number by visiting several local community radio stations. They also explained that this was only an information service, not a humanitarian hotline.

Volunteers live mapping the crisis at the Ushahidi Haiti Situation Room in the basement of The Fletcher School. Credit: Ushahidi Haiti Project (UHP).

Translating Needs

Soon enough, we began receiving thousands of text messages. As expected, these SMS’s were written in Haitian Creole rather than English. So my Ushahidi colleague Brian Herbert pulled an all-nighter to customize a web-based interface which was hosted at [no longer online]. The purpose of this second platform was to enable Haitian-Creole speaking volunteers to translate and geo-locate text messages sent to the SMS number. In effect, the platform was designed to enable the crowdsourced translation and geo-location of incoming text messages specifically for the Ushahidi Haiti Project. Many volunteers from the Haitian Diaspora joined the cause after hearing about the need for volunteers via Facebook.

Some Concerns

During this time, we contacted severals lawyers in Boston to determine whether we could even map these text messages from a privacy standpoint. They opined that we had implicit consent. Two seasoned humanitarian colleagues were also consulted for their feedback. They noted that Haiti was a particularly low risk situation. In other words, the possible harm that could come to local populations was minimal. Do No Harm is a standard principle for anyone operating in a humanitarian crisis or recovery context. The principle is important because it recognizes there is a risk to any intervention. And what is critical in deciding whether a certain course of action is ethical is to consider whether it could potentially cause harm to the local population. Given this feedback, we collectively decided that making the data open in this case was of minimal risk.

Meanwhile, back on the World Wide Web, several hundred volunteers logged on to Ushahidi’s translation platform and reportedly translated some 80,000 10,000 text messages during the first few weeks. Most of these, however, were either not relevant, actionable or mappable. So volunteers at The Fletcher School triaged the translated messages and only mapped the most important life and death messages, i.e., less than 2% of all SMS’s, a very small percentage indeed.

Engaging the Diaspora

Since a number of these SMS’s required more precise geo-location before they could be added to the map, we worked closely with many members of the Haitian Diaspora in Boston who obviously knew their country far better than any of us did. A number of our Haitian friends actually joined us (often for long hours on end) in our make-shift “Situation Room” at The Fletcher School (picture below).

Haitian volunteers crisis mapping Haiti with Sabina Carlson in the Haiti Situation Room at The Fletcher School. Sabina, who speak fluent Creole, was the project's volunteer liaison for the Haitian Diaspora. Credit: Ushahidi.

Operational Response

On January 19th, just a week after the earthquake, someone from the US Coast Guard emailed us with the following question: “I am compiling reports from Haiti for the US Coast Guard and Joint Task Force Command Center. Is there someone I can speak with about how better to use the information in Ushahidi?” Several days later, we set up a dedicate Skype chat with the Coast Guard to fast-forward the most urgent (and actionable) content that was being added to the live Haiti Crisis Map. We were also contacted by an American Search and Rescue team in Port-au-Prince who urgently needed GPS coordinators for the locations of trapped individuals. More on this incredible story here.

On January 22nd, the US Marine Corps got in touch with us via email:

“I am with the US Marine Corps. I am stateside assisting the 22 MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] coming off the USS Bataan [on the Haitian Coast]. We want to use your data to bring aid to the people Haiti right now. The USMC is focusing on Leogane, Grand Goave, and Petit Goave. Is there a way to import your data into Google Earth or GIS? We want to make this work for the people of Haiti…please let me know ASAP”

Needless to say, we replied ASAP. On the same day, FEMA’s Administrator Craig Fugate,  shared the following on his Twitter feed:

Craig Fugate is the Administrator. Credit: Screenshot from Twitter.

Five days later, the same contact from the US Marine Corps shared the following by email (which we got permission to make public):

“I can not overemphasize to you what the work of the Ushahidi/Haiti has provided. It is saving lives every day. I wish I had time to document to you every example, but there are too many and our operation is moving too fast.  Here is one from the 22 MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit]: ‘We had data on an area outside of Grand Goave needing help. Today, we sent an assessment team out there to validate their needs and everything checked out. While the team was out there, they found two old women and a young girl with serious injuries from the earthquake; one of the women had critical respiratory issues. They were evacuated.’

Your site saved these people’s lives. I say with confidence that there are 100s of these kind of stories. The Marine Corps is using your project every second of the day to get aid and assistance to the people that need it most. We did have a tech barrier that we had to surmount. The Marines downrange have Google Earth and your site does not work on the ship for them. So, I had Georgia Tech create a bridge from your site to Google Earth.

But it is YOUR data and YOUR work that is putting aid and assistance directly on the target and saving lives. Our big gap right now is locating NGOs and where they are working. Your site is helping with that. Keep up the good work!! You are making the biggest difference of anything I have seen out there in the open source world.”

At the end of this 2 month operation in Haiti, the Crisis Map looked like this:


These incredible efforts following the Haiti earthquake demonstrated a huge potential for the future of humanitarian response. Student volunteers in Boston working online with the Diaspora using free mapping technology from Africa could help save lives in another country thousands of miles away without ever setting foot in said country. In time, these reactive and organic volunteer-driven efforts in Haiti, and those that followed that same year in Chile, Pakistan and Russia, led to the launch of the award-winning Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a global network of 850+ volunteers in more than 80 countries around the world who use their live mapping skills to support humanitarian, human rights, development and media organizations .

The purpose of the SBTF is to create a network of already trained volunteers so we don’t have to scramble again like in Haiti. SBTF volunteers (or Mapsters as they are called) have since partnered with multiple organizations in dozens of deployments around the world.  The SBTF is now also part of the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHNetwork), a new consortium of volunteer networks who support humanitarian organizations.

For my next blog post in this series on Crisis Mapping, I’ll share an equally remarkable story about the United Nations, Genghis Khan, Satellite Imagery, Somalia and National Geographic. Yes, they’re all  connected in an intriguing way. Stay tuned to find out how! And remember, to map the world is to know it. But to map the world live is to change it before it’s too late.

Patrick Meier is a 2012 National Geographic Emerging ExplorerHe is an internationally recognized thought leader on the application of new technologies for positive social change. He currently serves as Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute (QCRI). Patrick also authors the widely respected iRevolution blog and tweets at @patrickmeier.


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Meet the Author

Patrick Meier
Patrick Meier is an internationally recognized thought leader on humanitarian technology and innovation. His new book, “Digital Humanitarians” has been endorsed by Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, UN, Red Cross, World Bank, USAID and others. Over the past 12 years, Patrick has worked in the Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia, Liberia, India, Nepal, Philippines, Timor-Leste, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Morocco, Western Sahara, Haiti, Vanuatu and Northern Ireland on a wide range of humanitarian projects with multiple international organizations including the United Nations and the World Bank. In 2010, he was publicly recognized by Clinton for his pioneering digital humanitarian efforts, which he continues to this day. Patrick’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, BBC News, UK Guardian, The Economist, Forbes & Times Magazines, New Yorker, NPR, Wired, Mashable, TechCrunch, Fast Company, Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American and elsewhere. His influential and widely-read blog iRevolutions has received over 1.7 million hits. He tweets at @patrickmeier.