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 is 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!

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  • Charles Henri Baker (born June 3, 1955) is a Haitian industrialist and former Haitian Presidential Candidate. Baker was a candidate for president in Haiti’s 2006 election. He initially billed himself as an independent and allied himself with the Komba de Chavannes Jean Baptiste and Evans Lescouflair party.

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  • Anthony

    Are there small planes that could be set into service for Haiti relief efforts? i.e. TurboProps, etc, that are the regoinal jets for many major airline carriers? I’ve read that many planes are just parked out in the desert due to the slow economy.

    An assessment of the electrical grid needs to be done.
    The state of power generation before the earthquake was less than the overall need. Could more refined diesel fuel be sent to the island given that so many facilities used their own generators anyway? Could any wind generators be set up quickly?

  • Kevin

    I can get you in touch with techs in Haiti.
    I have been in Haiti for over a year now so if you need help email me at

  • Pat Tressel

    1) Might be useful for the Haiti CrisisCamps to contact NetHope — they are working on restoring network connectivity in Port-au-Prince. See:

    2) Descriptions of the tools for reporting needs, being developed at the CrisisCamps, don’t mention news agencies among the expected users. But reporters are managing to get into places where there are no aid workers or other official presence, and where there is no other connectivity. News reports regularly include comments that reporters are being told of needs because there’s no-one else to tell. (For instance, I heard one reporter say he was at a neighborhood near Port-au-Prince with survivors outside collapsed houses. Roads into the area were blocked and aid agencies were likely unaware of the area. Sorry — don’t have a link to this report. CNN and MSNBC especially seem to be sourcing a lot of reports like this.) And reporters *are* managing to get their reports back out. So if reporters knew about the need-reporting tools, they could enter the needs / locations they uncover.

    3) Apologies for posting this here, but didn’t find an appropriate place on the CrisisCamp Haiti blog, and couldn’t fit this in 140 chars… Hoping Mr. Brewer can pass along anything of use here.

  • Earl

    I am working with Smartbridges to provide for 50 public hotspots for NGO’s and public access with laptops.I need to get in touch with the Port au Prince university tech students to assist.
    I did this in Banda-Ache for 4 months after the tsunami happened.
    Any techs willing to go to Haiti with me, please let me know ASAP.

  • W Parish

    I helped link first responder communicaitons with Cell phone communications in KITRINA. Portable cell towers are fast and easy to set up, linked to military and other responders for inneroperable communications is a must.
    citizens can call on cell, give location of need, maagement of the event call is done on the web with remote servers in the States, and back to country for action and deployment of various responders, when an event is closed out then routing to another so multiple calls to not route to the same need, management of the process with interface into cell phones . This was the ONLY working corrdination in Kitrina for three days and is a combo of hardware and software on the server side.. for details use email. Hardware on server side in place, portable cell towers are available from various co’s for deployment.

  • BJ

    Haiti received a number of OLPC XO-1s some time ago. They are rugged and can operate off of “dirty” power (e.g. car batteries, etc.). They can also be recharged by solar cells, hand crank generators, etc. This makes them very suitable for disaster areas.

    XO-1s include built in WiFi (802.11b/g and s (ad hoc mesh), webcams, etc. As XO-1s are located, they can be used to establish communications in various areas.

    I can provide more info and help if wanted. Contact me via email.

  • My company would like to offer software tools and assistance in the way of optimizing the supply chain (our expertise) of necessary supplies that need to reach the Haitian people and aid workers as well as conducting any kind of statistical assessments . Please have someone contact me via e-mail for further elaboration.

  • Filippa

    I read this in the Wall Street Journal´s business section, quoting jounalist Chris Herrings article in yesterdays web-issue :

    “Package handler UPS Inc. said it would donate $1 million to relief efforts through its charitable arm, and the union that
    represents the shipping giant’s pilots said it would volunteer to fly aid shipments to Haiti for free”.

    It seems UPS has offices for handling traffic of packages worldwide and I wondered if material help such as clothes, foods,
    toys, tents, blankets, sanitary products and medicine and any other material demand could be collected under coordination with
    teams worldwide. If a carrier plane heading to Haiti or nearby has space or can create it onboard, such aid could be available fairly
    quickly with the help of modern technology. The information and conditions could be transmitted to the public via press & local authorities
    with adresses to local UPS offices together with delays and conditions for the public donation to accord with the need. Competent
    volunteer coordination would be needed to sort and clear donations for customs and sanitary issues and an international network
    is needed for the transportation to succeed in arriving at the most urgent destinations.
    Can logistics being dealt with and aid packages arriving in Haiti ready for distribution help? I feel internet can do a great deal
    for such project and that the public is willing to give, if it is of help. Can such aid be landed in the Dominican Republic and
    distributed from there. If this aid is not immediately in need, and will take time in collecting and clearing for shipping in
    all necesary and supervised conditions, it will help in the coming months, and as the needs in Haiti are gradually defined, this
    informationis also kept streaming. Through internet, the information could be difused swiftly and coordination expenses be kept low.

    The donations could be distributed as most urgently needed for starters and then be given to upcoming associations for the care of orphans as aid for startups and future trade to support their longterm re-building efforts.

    Much respect for your innitiatives,
    Kind regards,

  • Franklin

    Rugged internet kiosks placed around haiti with info and missing db all in haitian. also plow a second runway already! distribute avalanche transponders to rescuers in case they go missing. are there ground penetrating infrared sensors on planes or satellite that can be used? if so, distribute captured images on internet for ppl to help search for trapped ppl

  • GD

    1. Navy Seals/Delta Special Ops at key spots across state to set up communications, inner ring security and command points.

    2. Use helicopters to land heavy duty cleaning equipment to clean roads mentioned by Haitian Ambassador ( North South and East West to connect port to air-strips.

    3. All hospital tents to be manned by armed soldiers to protect doctors and supplies

    4. Outer ring of UN Security to finger print adults and children while they receive supplies. Creates a live database of aid receipients. Could solve criminal offences if riots break out.

    5. Photograph bodies before burying via cheap camera distribution.

    Thanks for the idea of this meeting and please share.

  • NYCFreshman

    Potential idea (not my own) regarding Haiti earthquake: get medical supplies from Dominican Republic due to proximity advantage; replace them w/those collected in US; please share with people who can make this happen. Many thanks.