Edit: This is cross-posted with minor changes at http://www.mission4636.org/report/
Just over two years ago, Haiti was hit by one of the worst natural disasters in living memory. Despite the scale of the earthquake, most of the communication infrastructure remained intact. The Haitian community came together via radio and sms to share information about the quickly changing conditions: the locations of operational clinics and hospitals, information about missing people, the status of the international relief efforts that were arriving in the country.Most of the international relief workers arriving in the country did not speak Haitian Kreyol or know the geography of Haiti. I had the privilege to support an effort to bridge the gap between the Haitian community and the international relief efforts. Haitian engineers established a number in Haiti, ‘4636’, that anybody could send a text message to for free. In an effort called ‘Mission 4636’, Kreyol and French speakers worked on crowdsourcing platforms to translated, categorize, geolocate and extract missing person information from the text messages. The structured data, now in English, was streamed directly back to the relief efforts in Haiti, with a typical turnaround of just 5 minutes.
The majority of the people working on Mission 4636 were members of the Haitian diaspora, working from at least 49 different countries and collaborating via a simple online chat. I coordinated this initiative, which ran for several months, and for the latter half we transfered from international volunteers to paid crowdsourced workers within Haiti, creating jobs where they were needed most.
This post is to accompany the first full report about Mission 4636. It was the first time that crowdsourcing had been used for disaster response, and is still the largest deployment of its kind to date. The report has been accepted to the Journal of Information Retrieval and will be published there soon. This manuscript is released in advance of the publication:
In summary, the report has the following findings:
- 1. The greatest volume, speed and accuracy in information processing was by Haitian nationals and those working most closely with them.
- 2. Previous reports about Mission 4636 have incorrectly credited international organizations with the majority of the work. Only 5% of messages to 4636 went through the software run by international not-for-profits, but reports like the Disaster Relief 2.0 Report inflated this 5% to appear to be the whole effort, sidelining the 95% that was Haitian run.
- 3. No new technologies played a significant role in Mission 4636, which is again contrary to most reports to date.
- 4. Crowdsourcing (microtasking) was an effective strategy to structure and translate information into reports that the that responders could act on.
- 5. The online chat was vital for information sharing, as no one person could know all the possible locations and translations, but someone among the collaborating volunteers often did.
- 6. Among social media platforms, Facebook was by far the most important.
- 7. Translation was the largest and most important information processing task, followed by categorization and then geolocation and structuring information about missing people.
- 8. The use of a public-facing ‘crisis map’ for the messages was opposed by the majority of people within Mission 4636 and exposed the identities of at-risk individuals.
- 9. The majority of volunteers came together through social media and strong social ties.
- 10. A quarter of all crowdsourced information processing was by paid workers within Haiti, who were one of the most vital workforces but have also been excluded from most other reports to date.
- 11. The most important connections to the country were through the volunteers themselves, with direct relationships to people managing the clinics, radio stations, and individual people that we were supporting.
From the findings in the report, the following recommendations are made for organizations or individuals considering the use of crowdsourcing in response to future disasters:
- 1. Find and manage volunteers via strong social ties.
- 2. Maintain a ten-to-one local-to-international workforce.
- 3. Default to private data practices.
- 4. Publish in the language of the crisis-affected community.
- 5. Do not elicit information for which there is not the capacity to respond.
- 6. Do not elicit emergency response communications.
- 7. Use social media to encourage the centralization of information.
- 8. Establish partnerships with technology companies.
- 9. Avoid partnerships with media organizations and citizen journalists.
- 10. Integrate, don’t innovate or disrupt.
- 11. Employ people with close ties to the crisis-affected region.
As I hope the report makes clear, those of us who work in technology for social good owe an overwhelming debt to the Haitians among the diaspora who put aside their personal grief to come together online and work tirelessly to help those in the greatest need. There are many non-Haitians who have also played an important role, and continue to do so. For example, Mark Belinsky helped establish some of the workflows and has continued to serve Haiti, helping to establish KOFAVIV, an organization in Haiti that supports the victims of gender-based violence. Chrissy Martin helped manage a group of non-Haitians at Tufts University and has also helped Haitian telecommunication companies to establish phone banking. Ronny Hoffman was one of the most tireless volunteers, bootstrapping his knowledge of Kreyol from his work as a French teacher.
However, the greatest respect, credit and admiration should go to Haitians themselves. Many helped compile the report and it was an honor to invite them to give the final words in this article: