#DontForgetHaiti, How Social Media Can Help the Restoration

I attended a great Social Media Week panel on the future of Haiti yesterday at the New York Times. While the majority of the discussion analyzed social media and citizen journalism in crisis zones, several Haiti-specific lessons also emerged. Here's video; below are my highlights from the panel.


Jason Cone, communications director for Médécins sans Frontières (aka MSF or Doctors without Borders), said that the Haiti earthquake had really been a "game-changer" for his organization. Subscribers to their social media platforms multiplied rapidly and he said that going forward social media would likely be the "most important place we interact with the public," outstripping their main website and the traditional press release model. Their Twitter feed pretty much speaks for itself.

MSF had staff already working in Haiti when the quake hit, so first priority was to make sure their people were alright. The staff mobilized for disaster relief but found that they were "rapidly blazing through emergency supplies," which was compounded by their relief planes not being allowed to land in Port-au-Prince. The control tower was down at the airport and the U.S. Air Force had taken over to direct traffic, but coordination was difficult and MSF planes were diverted to the Dominican Republic multiple times.

This prompted MSF to engage the U.S. Air Force on its Twitter page, with an assist from NBC journalist Ann Curry. Saying to herself, "Lives are at stake," Ann decided to reach out through personal channels to Adm. Mike Mullen to lobby on behalf of MSF and secure access for its relief supplies, including an inflatable hospital. She had seen MSF doctors working literally at gunpoint in other conflict zones and had admiration for the organization's effectiveness. Eventually her networking plus MSF's use of traditional contacts to coordinate flights paid off, but Cone said it was a "firestarter to have this conversation online."


Moderator Andrew Rasiej of Personal Democracy Forum asked Rob Mackey of the New York Times Lede blog how they filter social media to find relevant information when a major event floods the web with status updates. Mackey indicated that live blogging the 2008 Mumbai attack was nearly impossible, but that techniques have improved since then. The location feature can be useful, but it is still necessary to investigate and verify a person's details. For example, as we saw with the Iran election, Twitter users were encouraged to change their locations to Tehran in "I am Spartacus" solidarity with the protesters, to make it harder for authorities to track and persecute people.

One method is to find a nodal person on the ground such as a photographer and build a filter based on their contacts. Ann Curry did something similar with Luke Renner, a humanitarian worker based in Cap-Haïtien prior to the quake. He reached out to her via Twitter and gave her his phone number. She put him in touch with NBC Nightly News, they vetted him, and the next day she was interviewing him live as cohost of the Today Show.

Later that day her team was en route to Haiti and trying to figure out how to connect with Luke once there, as most of the communications channels were down or unreliable. Through a mix of Blackberries, Twitter, satellite phones, and Skype they eventually managed to coordinate a rendezvous at the airport. Ann's experience of watching Luke start to double as a humanitarian and a citizen journalist drove home the message that "Twitter is teaching people the power of information."

Rasiej asked whether citizen journalism and Haiti have changed our relationship with traditional media. Mackey responded that the change began during the Iran election when hundreds of YouTube videos were uploaded daily. He said that when you're relying on anonymous sources from the web you have to have a transparent discussion with your audience about that fact. Rasiej noted that in some cases the veracity of video clips has even been crowd-sourced, with viewers pointing out continuity mistakes in the shadows of different scenes.

Curry described an emerging ethos where people with useful info express a "real wish to serve" and a desire to "be part of a force for good" by passing that info to the right people or simply retweeting it to their networks. But the buck stops with the reputation of the journalist when it comes to responsibility for vetting the info. If you let yourself be misled you will end up misleading. She mentioned that a lot of biased info came out of Iran, specifically regarding torture, and it was "never backed up."

Cone noted that it is easier to preserve neutrality in a humanitarian situation like Haiti than in a political crisis like Iran. In the case of MSF, their effectiveness depends on depoliticization. He said that in Haiti they turned to traditional radio interviews to debunk rumors that going to a hospital meant certain amputation.


After seeing the horrible human devastation of the earthquake, Curry feels that a lot of humanitarian workers and Haitian citizens alike will need post-traumatic stress counseling. Cone agreed, noting that they have already started to rotate out some of their original response staff, debriefing them in the Dominican Republic. Curry says that seeing bodies everywhere and looking into the eyes of people you know are going to die provokes a lot of survivor's guilt. Psychological restoration in Haiti will be an important component of long-term stability.

On that note, Andrew Rasiej asked whether social media could be used to keep attention focused on Haiti. Cone said MSF will continue its social media efforts despite reconstruction stories being less dramatic than the original event. Ann Curry noted the media's tendency to lapse into disaster fatigue, citing the bloody and drawn-out conflict in Congo, which Nick Kristof revisited again in a recent column. She said network coverage of Haiti started to fade while the topic was still trending high on Twitter. This prompted her to go to her boss and ask if they should cover it more. [Used in this way, there can be self-reinforcing feedback with trend metrics, as people tend to tweet what they're exposed to—a new media Ouroboros.]

Curry also predicted that social media would continue to nourish niche knowledge, speculating that disasters will leave in their wake a "tough core group that continues to be informed," which pretty much sums up the HaitiRewired mission. Rasiej cited stats about mobile phone penetration worldwide, saying we might see global consciousness before we know it, even in places like Congo.


Several elements emerge from this picture as key focal points for the HaitiRewired community: Fund-raising, Distributed energy, Mobile phones, and Psychological restoration.

It's clear that the success of text-message donations in this crisis means that we'll see a proliferation of organizations using such services the next time disaster strikes somewhere. In this vein, it may also be relevant to explore microfinancing and peer-to-peer donations as a source of sustainable development income.

Communication on the ground is crucial in emergencies, making mobile phone service a priority in Haiti. Of course, the phones and other relief services need power that can't be knocked out easily, which is why a distributed network of energy sources is necessary for resilience.

Finally, the psychosocial restoration of Haiti must be taken into account when exploring design options for urban infrastructure. Of course, the greatest stress relief for the Haitian people would be an end to their crushing poverty.

[PHOTO CREDIT: Georgia Popplewell (CC).]

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