Civic Hackers for Haiti


Tomorrow morning, software developers from around Washington, D.C. will come together at the Sunlight Foundation in order to find the best ways to use data and create solutions for aid workers to assist the relief efforts in Haiti. These CrisisCamps, (an idea which arose out of Transparency Camp ’09), or “Hackathons for Haiti” will also take place in Silicon Valley and London.

For those that want to follow and contribute, but aren’t in those areas, Crisis Camp isĀ on Twitter as well.

The event(s) will bring together specialists in database creation, visualization, geospatial data and other fields in order to build reliable tools that field workers and other volunteers will be able to use on laptops and mobile devices. Ideally some developers will also think about long-term, data-centric solutions, like tracking relief dollars and helping to make the distribution of funds a bit more accountable. (After all, if there’s been difficulty knowing where the billions in Katrina relief went, just imagine the challenge in a country with virtually no social or governmental accountability mechanism like Haiti.)

Perhaps the best part of events such as Crisis Camp is that there’s not necessarily a pre-determined idea of what is needed before folks show up. The openness of Crisis Camp allows for new, innovative ideas to emerge, bounce around, be refined and become something bigger or better before they are created – and all accomplished by volunteers who may not ever wield a hammer for Habitat for Humanity, but contribute just as much with a keystroke and code commit.

This type of digital volunteerism in response to a disaster is not necessarily new to developers who have been lending their skills to non-profits and social causes for years, but to “mainstream” folks, the fact that contributions of technical skill is expanding beyond elite programmers and tech companies more or less is.

In the immediate aftermath of any disaster there is inevitably an outpouring of donations – from food, clothing and supplies to money. There’s been tremendous coverage of this support for Haiti in the news, and it is truly incredible what technologies like simple, fast, fee-free mobile giving are allowing for in terms of charitable donations. These donations of all sorts are being made in conjunction with the immediate “basic-needs” response, which is (and should be) provided by well established NGOs such as the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders and governmental entities. The “basic needs” response is typically followed by “rebuilding efforts” provided by such groups as Habitat for Humanity for example, and include the aforementioned hammer wielding volunteers. These practically-immediate and overwhelming public responses are one of the most incredible parts of American culture in my opinion.

The technical systems and information infrastructure that the entire network of relief requires, however, is also something that typically needs re-building and supporting in times of disaster, and “civic hackers” as are answering the call.

In response to Hurricane Katrina, developers from America’s top technology companies like Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Sun Microsystems – as well as dozens of other citizens – took time off work, drove to New Orleans and Houston for weeks at a time, built databases for missing persons, set up mobile server farms for communications where cellular towers were inoperable, created online “shelter finders” accessible from a phone, process donations, and much more.

Those early collaborations have been followed up by such efforts as “Random Hacks of Kindness” and other initiatives which made relief possible at all in some areas over the last few years, and will no doubt contribute in huge ways in the weeks and months ahead for Haiti.

Already in response to the Haiti disaster, groups like the Extraordinaries are using their iPhone volunteering platform to help find and match up missing persons.

What other apps should developers be thinking about creating at Crisis Camp? What’s needed?

As a final note, and before Crisis Camp even happens, we want to send a huge thanks to the organizers of this Camp and the many techies and developers like Jeremy Johnstone of Yahoo! who’ve been aiding disaster relief efforts for years. You are heroes in your own right!