This video segment from Geospatial Revolution, produced by Penn State Public Broadcasting, demonstrates how different digital technologies can be used together to create a powerful mapping tool that can help in a crisis situation. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a technology platform called Ushahidi was used to help rescue teams and aid workers perform their services and communicate with one another. Using a combination of satellite images of Haiti, information collected on the ground via text messages and social media Web sites, and volunteer translators outside of Haiti, Ushahidi produced interactive online maps that reflected the real-time situation, indicating where help was needed and the location of collapsed buildings and makeshift hospitals.
In the early morning hours of January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince, the densely populated capital city of Haiti, a poor island-nation in the Caribbean Sea. As many as 316,000 people may have died. With more than 70 percent of homes destroyed in the city and immediate suburbs, more than half of the 2.8 million inhabitants were left homeless. As bad as the damage was, the human toll could have been worse were it not for a high-tech approach to disaster relief.
Ushahidi, the technology platform featured in the video, now serves as a model for crisis management in the digital age. This free service overlays satellite maps of areas affected by natural disasters or civil strife with data collected from multiple sources, including text messages, social networking sites, and Web forms. Ushahidi is a geospatial technology—a technology that can visualize, measure, and analyze geographical features or phenomena that occur on Earth. In emergencies, Ushahidi enables local authorities and aid workers to understand what’s happening at a specific location and thereby make faster and better-informed decisions to help restore order and even save lives. For example, it can identify where running water has been cut off, where buildings have collapsed, or, as in the case of earthquakes, where aftershocks have been reported.
This kind of platform can be used by organizations worldwide in just about any imaginable crisis situation. Ushahidi was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the 2008 elections, submitted via the World Wide Web and cell phones. Since then, Ushahidi has been used to monitor elections in India, Mexico, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, and to track civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It played a crucial role in mapping the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and tracking the oil slick. Ushahidi even helped record the locations of downed trees, blocked streets, and snow cleanup efforts during Washington DC’s record-breaking snowstorms in 2010.
In Haiti, landlines near the earthquake’s epicenter were wiped out. Even though two-thirds of cell towers remained active, overloaded networks made telephone calls nearly impossible. However, because text messages do not require as much bandwidth as phone calls, text messaging was still available and became the basis of the Ushahidi emergency network. Shortly after the quake, cell phone service providers sent the distress code number to every cell phone on the Haitian network. Customers could then send text messages about missing persons and emergency needs to this number. The platform recorded the incoming data, mapped the sending location, and visually enhanced the map with the data. As more and more text messages came in, it became clear where food, water, or medical attention was required.
While the concept of rescue support using geospatial technology is nothing new—911 emergency services and vehicle security systems have been using it for years—the integration of Web-based programs is. In fact, social media tools have quickly become crucial in disaster relief operations. When someone posts a message on Twitter or Facebook, or a video on YouTube, it may be forwarded to friends, the media, and emergency managers. In this way, news of a crisis or disaster can be shared almost instantly and spread exponentially. Researchers have found that these and other social media tools have been better at providing warnings, help, and status updates for people directly involved in a crisis than the mainstream news media and other traditional sources.
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