Unless you have been living under rock, you would have heard about last week's earthquake in Haiti and the aftershock that followed today (which had a magnitude 6.1 on the Richter Scale).
One thing you might not be aware of is the role that technology –particularly new media – has played in providing information on the ever-changing conditions in the country.
As a result of the destruction of the phone lines on the island, it was difficult to know how widespread the damage by the earthquake was. However, the network infrastructure survived making it possible to communicate via the web and Haitians in the Diaspora were able to check on the well-being of their relatives back home.
These tools served to address another important need: the need for information about situation on ground. Using email, Twitter and social networking sites like Facebook, thousands of volunteers as part of Project Ushahidi were able to map reports sent by people from Haiti. According to this BBC article:
they [people in Haiti] used mobile phones and the web to inform about structural risks, lack of water and food, and missing persons.
"We translate it, map it, and structure the data," said Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman. Ushahidi made an agreement with local mobile phone operator Digicel and created a short code to which people could text their message. That message is received by "situation rooms" set up in Boston and Washington. A third one will be set up in Geneva to provide 24-hour cover. About 10,000 Haitians have volunteered to translate messages from Creole to English and ask for more information if needed.
Other volunteers and experts try to verify the information and put it into the map. This is crowdsourcing on a big scale.
This article by Curtis Brainard for the Columbia Journalism Review highlights some social media compiled in a report by PC World used to supply much-needed information:
Haitian radio and television host Carel Pedre was one of the most prominent figures using Twitter to communicate with the outside world. “DIGICEL IS WORKING! CALL UR FAMILY NOW!!”…
A Wordpress-powered blog called Haitifeed is also delivering a steady stream of first-hand accounts as well as mainstream media reports from across the globe.
Reports from citizen journalists are also coming in to CNN’s iReport desk where they are vetted by CNN’s editorial staff.
On Facebook, a group called Earthquake Haiti already has over 14,000 members. The group is largely being used for people to show support and trade news reports; however, there are some users who seem to be posting critical information including pleas for assistance to injured Haitians.
In her foreword to the book, SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa, social justice blogger Sokari Ekine writes that:
"Technology in itself does not lead to social change. For change to take place technology needs to be appropriate and rooted in local knowledge. People decide why and how a particular technology will be used and, depending on the political and socio-economic environment in which they live, adapt it accordingly."
Social media has played a pivotal role in getting and disseminating information in the last eight days and we probably are only scratching the surface in exploiting its diverse uses.