How To Royally Mess Up Disaster Response in Haiti

I have to find an outlet other than this one to vent my frustrations at this time, which is why I deleted the 5 paragraphs that followed about 3 times. Not to worry, I saved them in a Word document. Good, now that I’ve got the venting part over with, lets play a crowdsourcing game.

I’d love to get your thoughts on the Top 10 ways to mess up disaster response in Haiti using information and communication technology. Suggestions can be completely made up, they can be jokes, serious commentary, witty remarks, predictions, actual observations, and so on, you get the idea. Feel free to post your comments below (anonymously if you wish), but no insults or accusations please, or else I’ll have to delete them.

I’ll keep this game open for 7 days and will post the best results on a new blog post. The person with the best comment will get a free invitation to the:

2nd International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010):
Haiti and Beyond

Patrick Philippe Meier

30 responses to “How To Royally Mess Up Disaster Response in Haiti

  1. 1. Allow the unprecedented access to the internet (thanks, Inveneo!) to keep responders chained to their desks even more than they already often are.
    2. As a result of 1, allow ‘intelligence’ based on the web and email trump what we can see in real life, day to day.
    3. Allow valid criticisms to be locked up in Word files instead of being put out in the open on blogs like this.

  2. Following Michael’s lead on 3 bullets
    1. Manipulate real-world outcomes and processes to facilitate fit with tech tools or preferences of tech communities (which are just means, and facilitators)
    2. Reduce 2 way comms between the responder community and the surviving population
    3. [idem MK]Allow ‘intelligence’ based on the web and email trump what those on the ground can see in real life, day to day.

    …had a bunch more tweeted under #cchaitidc but twitter search is whaling. arrgh.

  3. I have to second Michael’s comment. Although I also have my criticisms in an OpenOffice document… 😉

  4. Although with regard to comment 1, I don’t think it’s the fault of the providers that we’re chained to the internet – finally we have decent internet access, but our own bad habits (mine included) keep us locked into it even when there is little added value.

  5. @Paul C Um, yes, I did not want to suggest in any way that it is Inveneo’s fault if people don’t leave their desks. My thanks were totally sincere and not meant as a snide comment. Thanks for flagging that this could be read as such!

    Now if only ‘OpenOffice’ would equate to ‘Open Access’… 😉

  6. Make gazillions of remote sensed enormous maps of damage from space during the first week.

  7. At the risk of pmpp (pimping my pet pony), I’d like to suggest that perhaps we need an effort to collate design patterns for disaster relief technology. Listing the problems is an important step, but unless they are coupled with solutions, we’re risking a rantfest.
    My guess is that the core issue is: a lot of people have good intentions but no clue (e.g. myself), the few people who know how to do things right are very busy, and “right” changes all the time.
    So, we need a way to share design knowledge – the knowledge of what problems to expect and how to deal with them. Also, we need representations that steer away from anecdotes. Actually, we need to start with anecdotes but find a way to distil and validate transferable lessons from them.

    • “… we need to start with anecdotes but find a way to distil and validate transferable lessons from them.”

      It’s called ‘qualitative research’ and lots of books have been written about it. And the great thing: it is actually already going on.

      • Qualitative research. What an interesting concept. Let me google it.
        Sorry, joking. On the serious side:
        I’ve been doing qualitative research for many years. I find that most of what we produce is anecdotes, more anectodes, and “well-doh” truisms. True, my observations are in a different field, crisis response research may be better off, but maybe not.
        The problem is not with the distinction between qualitative & quantitative. Unless by quantitative you mean randomised trials, and obviously that’s not a good idea in this case. In fact, the distinction is harmful. You should gather what data you can and make the best of it. Emphesis on data, which is not the plural of anecdote.
        The real problem (and again, I’m projecting from another field) as that prodominantly research tells us either
        a. what’s wrong (social science paradigms) or
        b. how things should be (humanities / natural sciences)
        but very little on how to get from (a) to (b). now, *that* would be the kind of science I would like to see in action. And that’s what I call a design science paradigm.

  8. some general thoughts….
    -not integrating/linking information from the ground into the fancy tech from the outside to verify and qualify information with local context
    -establishing competing information systems and technology tools with the main purpose being to get your organization/agency in the news and grab more media space/funding
    -using technology for technology’s sake
    -fully managing the disaster remotely/from above and/or not engaging local people in decisions and information gathering/ management
    -designing technology tools and systems without input from local people, knowledge of the local situation, understanding of existing levels of ICT use, or engaging people on the ground who are managing the situation directly
    -not designing, integrating, testing and training around ICTs in the preparedness process
    -too many chiefs
    -not balancing the online and offline
    -expectations that technology is the silver bullet

  9. 1. thinking that helping 2 000 000 persons as one only group is the only way to help them!
    2. prohibit the airport to rescue teams and humanitarian organizations, or physicians, while allowing for evacuation of non injured Western peoples and for Scientologists who treat injurieds by occultism.
    3. close the airport when the food arrived on the pretext of insecurity, while Dominicans distribute bread, water and salami on a pick up without being attacked.
    4. especially, not to provide ration cards or distribution points so that all the people rushing to any location regardless of the quantity available.
    5. most also do not give money to people, not to supply the stores, do not use existing networks for fear of reviving the local economy as called for Action Against Hunger.
    6. not to seek the views of people in distress, because we know better than they what they need
    7. pay dearly for people to think instead of the other or to work in place of others and keep assisted in their role of assisted
    8. do nothing stable, changing every day, to keep the fear of missing
    9. for journalists: making information more attractive calling looters those who searched the rubble of their homes or a store , maintaining the myth of insecurity, and leave when everything is finally normal, so as not especially not support fruitful efforts.
    10. for politicians: rush on the windfall of an earthquake in a poor country with an expanding population to promote the fight against overpopulation by limiting the immediate aid and by conditioning future aid to laws completely disagree with the desire of this population .

  10. Can I just copy/paste Linda’s???

    I’d just add “Never update your information on an hourly basis, cause the information will remain the same.”

  11. At the risk of upsetting people I respect and principles I do appreciate, really, here’s one:

    1. Pick a fight (or try to) with ICRC about missing persons databases.

  12. By the way, I would love to also hear people’s thoughts on “the Top 10 ways to mess up disaster response in Haiti by NOT using available information and communication technology” I certainly could offer my own list there…. Wish tech and aid communities and on the ground responders had a better bridge between them and worked together more. I have hopes that might happen in preparedness, taking learning from Haiti….

  13. Allow disaster communications to become a form of voyeurism for people not involved in the response.

  14. Warning: I’m approaching Paul Currion curmudgeon levels (no surprise to those of you who know our history – I’m just traditionally silent/optimistic one :-).

    For my sins I’ve just got back as the UNDAC team’s on the ground Info Lead, and over beer last night some old-hand “disaster junkies” had a bit of a round-table and agreed “Worst in almost every way, for lots of reasons”.

    How to stuff it up?

    Starting this list is easy:

    1. Have a major disaster in the capital of a poor country that kills hundreds of thousands, wipes out all public services and most of the government, and traumatises the UN and major NGO’s.

    2. Have this country be just close enough to the US that people who think donating shoes is a good idea can actually send cargo ‘planes full of [shoes|one person K9 SAR teams 9 days after the earthquake|congressional delegations who only want to talk about their favourite orphanage of 20 kids and what they can do to help|you get the point…]

    Mind you, same thing happened in [Iraq|Sudan|Tsunami|Haiti 2004 floods|…] with goods from [US|Europe|any country you can name]

    3. Have the disaster occur where there’s a major UN Peacekeeping mission. (lots of reasons why this makes things hard, not all of them anti-UN)

    And on the information/tech side:

    4. Have half decent sat/cell voice/internet communications. Expectations/media/HQ etc makes it harder strangely enough.

    (An aside: if you think the info side is that much worse than other major sudden onset disasteres (Tsunami, Pakistan) then, with respect, you might need to buy me beers and keep buying until I’m so drunk I forget 🙂

    5. Deploy systems “almost ready to pilot” into the middle of a major response. (mostly just distracting/energy suck but that’s bad enough)

    6. Have 100 different groups yelling “I’ve created a database with a (choose from) [contact list/crowdsourced inputs/map in X|Y|Z format/using my own data formats] , so why won’t you [Nigel|UN|”people”|US Military|…] use it!!!” 🙂

    (side note: people, I tried, but as with “NAME YOUR MAJOR SUDDEN ONSET EMERGENCY HERE” it became too much without Systems in place. This we need to fix, suggestion forthcoming. Perhaps we can make progress this time.

    7. Watch as the thematic clusters (health, WASH, food, SAR…) still build ad-hoc spreadsheets from the ground up, yet again, and still, after more than 5 years of prodding, have no simple data schema, simple enough tools, training or process to support responses.

    8. Watch “NAME OF AGENCY HERE” try to suggest that first responders on the ground use their carefully HQ prepared “field adapted” SQL database for collecting structured data in the first week.

    9. Have no way to know who/where/how the existing Government data is.

    10. The usual pissing matches between agencies about who gets to do what, who listens to whom, etc.

    11. A bunch of stuff that’s going in my mission report and is probably best said there first.

    Want to get together and figure some things out while it’s still fresh?

    • Awesome. Thanks for writing this up, Nigel. On point #5, don’t get me started, just don’t. On point #4, note that I make no claim at all (nor do I think) that the info side in the Haiti disaster response is worse than Tsunami/Pakistan. We were able to get VHR satellite imagery shared within 24 hours in Haiti, for example.

    • Wow, I might have to hand over my Curmudgeon Crown… but seriously, the reason why I’m disengaged with the sector right now is captured right here.

      First, the organisations who – for better or for worse – actually do the work continue to develop their own ad hoc systems during the emergency phase. THIS IS FINE. What is not fine is the lack of interoperability between those systems, which is something that both myself and Nigel have been banging our heads against for years.

      The solution is easy: develop standards rather than platforms. However this hasn’t happened and in my opinion it isn’t going to happen. I think there is a serious disconnect between the well-meaning tech community and the people who actually do the work – not just in terms of communications but in terms of the type of people who are involved.

      Nigel and myself are the exceptions. We know and care about the technology, believe that it can transform the sector, and understand the opportunities and limitations; assuming that everybody in the sector operates the same is a colossal mistake.

  15. And, in case you think I was comment about you/your project/your agency: trust me, I probably wasn’t. Though if you feel guilty for shortcomings in this response (I do) then we can also talk 🙂

  16. Expand Ushahidi’s reach to identify where the most shoes are sold in order to determine where most Haitians shoe-shop. Next, deploy Jessica Simpson to this locale making for most efficient distribution of soles4souls 50,000 pairs.


  17. story,0,3239444.story

    “Volunteers Recruited to Rebuild New Orleans Through Virtual Volunteering

    ABC26 News

    January 19, 2010
    CHALMETTE – The St. Bernard Project is recruiting volunteers to contribute to the rebuilding of New Orleans through virtual volunteering. In just 30 seconds a virtual volunteer can help SBP win $1 Million from Chase Community Giving on Facebook.

    The St. Bernard Project is one of 100 organizations competing to win a $1 million prize from Chase Community Giving on Facebook. The organization that receives the most votes on Facebook wins. We’re currently ranked sixteenth. To receive the $1M prize, the St. Bernard Project needs to be in the number one spot; however, organizations ranked second through fifth will receive $100,000. Polls close Friday, Jan 22.

    The St. Bernard Project is dedicated to rebuilding homes and lives in St. Bernard and Orleans parishes for Hurricane Katrina survivors who are still are still struggling to rebuild. The St. Bernard Project is the only non-profit organization in Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama in the competition. A vote for the St. Bernard Project is a vote for every resident, organization and volunteer dedicated to the rebuilding of the Greater New Orleans area.”

    I see they are still crowdsourcing for New Orleans

  18. Interesting call for comments. I am in the progress of conducting a study on how citizens used Twitter in response to a city-wide crisis. I was actually thinking of how people could use ICT intentionally to mess up disaster response.

    One person or a group of people could….

    1) Repeatedly send controversial tweets about the disaster that you know will cause negative feedback like “Why are we helping Haiti? They deserved this” or “Why are you all offering prayers? God can’t help them, he did this” These comments and replies to the comments can fill up the stream of messages.

    2) Create multiple accounts, follow tons of people in order to get a good number of followers, transmit relevant disaster info that people retweet (so people see the fake accounts are reliable), and then use URL shortening services to send people directly to files that have viruses.

    3) Send incorrect information to missing people sites such as iCNN or Tweak the Tweet so people don’t see them as reliable sources.

    4) Create fake calls for help (again after sending reliable tweets). Use the multiple fake accounts to reweet the calls hoping that others will retweet them too.

    5) Create a Twitter profile of a fake news organization that sends tweets with links to the fake news organization’s website which looks legit. Tweet reliable information about the disaster and then send inaccurate and misleading reports. Again, use the multiple fake profiles to retweet the news feeds.

  19. Top 10 ways to mess up disaster response:
    1-: Ask to much from yourself(and your organisation), 2-do not sleep enough, ,3- do not rest enough,4- Ask to much from yourself,5-do not sleep enough,6-do not eat enough, 7-do smoke to much,8-do drink too much alcohol,

  20. Kepp Your Promise

    The week is over….

  21. Good point. I wonder who won the invitation. To who ever wins, see you at the conference.

  22. This is indeed long over due, but the winner, likely not surprising, is Nigel Snoad (aka Paul Currion junior 😉

  23. Pingback: Good Intentions Are Not Enough » Blog Archive » Interesting articles, posts, and guidelines from late Jan and early Feb 2010

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