Traditional helpers in disaster relief, such as the U.N. and world governments, provided aid after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti in January 2010, leveled Port-au-Prince, claimed 230,000 lives and caused US$14 billion in damages.
The technology space also played a role in humanitarian efforts as Haitians buried under rubble sent text messages with their locations and open-source mapping communities documented the island. To further research technology's role in disaster relief, the United Nations Foundation and it partners commissioned a study from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) on the topic.
"Our job is to design an interface between the U.N. and volunteer technology communities as well as citizens from affected nations," said John Crowley, a research fellow at the HHI and the report's lead author. "We are really at the beginning stages. We need to start this conversation now. What we saw in Haiti will happen again."
While the final study is due out in March, the report's initial findings were released last week to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the earthquake. These early results indicate that mobile technology, the open-source community and Web services each have roles in future humanitarian relief missions.
Open Street Map, an open-source world map, used old maps and satellite images to construct new maps. The organization, a volunteer group of map enthusiasts, refreshed its maps every minute to address the amount of data being added, Crowley said.
Map Action, a volunteer organization of mapping professionals that is partnered with the U.N., also created new maps using GPS and satellite technology.