Page last updated at 13:33 GMT, Friday, 15 January 2010

Social networks and the web offer a lifeline in Haiti

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

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Inmarsat's chief executive Andrew Sukawaty explains to the BBC's Daniel Emery how his firm's satellite network is assisting in Haiti's rescue efforts

The collapse of traditional channels of communication in Haiti has again highlighted the role of social media and the internet in disasters.

Twitter is being used as a prime channel for communications, while sites such as Ushahidi are providing maps detailing aid and damage.

Both Google and Facebook are producing missing persons lists.

Satellite networks are also diverting resources to provide communications to aid agencies and the military.

The very first images to escape from the region after Tuesday's earthquake came from citizens, capturing video with mobile phones.

But landlines near the epicentre have been wiped out, and mobile phone service has been at best intermittent - a fact that has already hampered rescue efforts.

The UN body Telecoms Sans Frontieres, which maintains a network of telecommunications engineers and mobile equipment worldwide, has deployed two teams in the region. The World Food Programme operates a similar service .

"When we arrive in the country, we establish a telecoms centre for the humanitarian community, for them to be able to communicate and have access to internet and phone," said Telecoms Sans Frontiere's Catherine Sang.

I am starting to run - literally, run - every time an aftershock hits. Seen far too many bodies. Don't wanna add to that number
Tweet from Firesideint

"We also operate a humanitarian calling operation for the population, so they can call their family and friends in the country or abroad," she told BBC News.

Ms Sang said that the teams have as yet been unable to set up the network for the general populace due to security concerns.

Inmarsat, a UK-based firm that operates a network of satellites, received word from the UN just an hour after the initial quake, and has begun re-allocating satellite time to the region.

For those with satellite-enabled equipment - namely aid agencies and the military - such extra capacity is vital when traditional communication channels have been damaged or cut off altogether.

Community service

However, for the ordinary people in the worst-affected areas of Haiti, as well as loved ones desperate for information about them, the most relevant sources of information are civilians on the ground with some familiar technological tools at their disposal.

Just seconds after the earthquake, people began to send messages from Haiti through Twitter.

Since then, the Twitter group tagged "#relativesinhaiti" has been flooded with traffic from relatives trying to find out about their loved ones from abroad, while "#rescumehaiti" is being used to direct rescue efforts where trapped survivors have been located.

The Red Cross, CNN and the New York Times are compiling missing persons databases, but the Facebook group "Earthquake Haiti" has more than 160,000 members.

rescuemehaiti screenshot
Tweets are directing search and rescue efforts complete with addresses

Pierre Cote is a journalist based in Haiti who has been contacted by a number of news organisations in the wake of the disaster, and who is broadcasting from a studio over the web.

He conducted an interview with the BBC via the service Skype, popular for making voice and video calls over the internet, and spoke about his role in communicating about the disaster.

"If I'm not doing it, no one will do it - the traditional media won't do it," he said. "The community need it so for me it's a service to the community to bring it all together."

Another web-based tool that has recently become crucial in disaster relief and information dissemination is Ushahidi.

Initially the service made its name following the disputed Kenyan elections of 2007. It provides an open-source, free service which can overlay maps of affected regions with data gathered from a raft of sources.

Detailed maps can show, for instance, where aid will be delivered, where running water has been cut off or restored, or - as in the case of Haiti - where aftershocks have been reported.

Data checking

However, recent experience with the unpoliced nature of these vast streams of data has made clear that not all information can be trusted.

Among the pictures circulating around the internet in the wake of the Haiti disaster, one claiming to be of a Haitian bridge was actually taken in Japan following an earthquake in 2006.

The risks of such misinformation in the aftermath of a disaster - in particular for those cases that involve divisive politics or propaganda - have already been identified in a report compiled by the UN Foundation/Vodafone Foundation technology partnership in December.

Ushahidi screenshot
The open-source Ushahidi is again proving a valuable information tool

The founders of Ushahidi are working on a verification system that can independently assure that information coming in is corroborated and accurate.

Taken together, the flow of information via these tools, alongside compiled by services that make sense of it, means that dealing with the aftermath of disaster is quicker, more integrated, and more visible to those inside and outside the affected area.

However, no such efforts can fully replace a functioning, full-scale infrastructure, and that will leave many people both inside and outside Haiti anxious for answers.

There are initial reports that some of the local phone networks have managed to restore some capacity.

Ken Banks, founder of FrontlineSMS and a specialist in mobile telecoms in emergency situations, said that once people realise the networks are back up they are likely to become very congested.

"It will be like New Year's Eve as everyone tries to get through," he told BBC News. "SMS is more likely to get through, even if it is delayed."



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