Geeks For Haiti Work To Restore Communications

By  Susan Nunziata — January 26, 2010

As news about the devastation caused by the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti fades from front pages nationwide, teams of telecommunications engineers, wireless network architects, application developers, equipment vendors and others are working furiously to restore communications and provide mobile and wireless tools to agencies involved in relief and recovery.
 
There are many ways you can volunteer your skills to help. Projects include:
  1. Rebuilding core cellular telecommunications structures
  2. Deploying satellite and solar power to restore broadband communications
  3. Creating mobile applications that can be used by relief agencies
  4. Aggregating SMS calls for help from people in need so that aid organizations on the ground in Haiti can respond.
These and other efforts exemplify an astonishing level of cooperation among telecommunications and technology vendors, application developers, government and non-government organizations (NGOs), relief agencies and many others.
 
Techies Unite
NetHope, Telecomms Sans Frontieres (TSF), CrisisCommons and Ushahidi are among the organizations lending their technical expertise to keep first responders and those in need of aid connected. For example, in the photo at right, NetHope's Joe Simmons with Kah Chia of ITC Global and a CHF International worker install satellites on CHF's rooftop in Port Au Prince. (Photo: NetHope).
 
AT&T, BlackBaud, Cisco, Clickatell, Dell, HP, Intel, Motorola, T-Mobile, Socket Mobile and Spacenet are among the many vendors stepping up with equipment and personnel to aid in the restoration of communications in Haiti.
 
As of Jan. 21, 2010, Haitian wireless carrier Digicel announced that it had most of its cellular sites up across the country and seven of its stores had reopened in Port Au Prince. Orange in the Dominican Republic donated technical resources and equipment to aid Digicel.
 
Viola, a Haitian wireless network operated by Trilogy International Partners, announced that 80% of its cell sites are operational. Among its efforts, the company is donating more than 20,000 phones and free service to first responders, NGOs and relief agencies operating in Haiti.
 
AT&T initially airlifted 1,000 Motorola EM330 wireless phones to Haiti for Voila employees, later donating an additional 7,000 wireless phones to Haitian carrier. AT&T has also donated smartphones and services to humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide, which is working on the ground in Haiti.
 
Nonetheless, the sheer volume of call traffic into and out of the country has meant spotty cellular coverage thus far.
 
Satellites & WiFi
McLean, VA-based NetHope has 28 aid and relief organizations as members worldwide using telecommunications to encourage collaboration and aid. Members include CARE, CHF, International Rescue Committee, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and Oxfam. In addition, the American Red Cross, the Canadian Red Cross and Save The Children UK are federated members.
 
Twenty of NetHope's member organizations have permanent operations in Haiti and have technicians working with the agency's 10-12 engineers there to restore broadband connectivity, primarily via satellite.
 
They first deployed "network relief kits," says NetHope CEO William Brindley. These BGAN satellite-based kits are essentially "broadband in a knapsack," he says, enabling organizations to get online for data and to use VoIP services for calling. NetHope has an arrangement with Skype so that its member organizations can use the service to make VoIP calls for free or at a reduced price.
 
High frequency radios donated by Motorola are also in use. Overall, Motorola and the Motorola Foundation are providing more than $550,000 in products, including two-way radios, rugged laptops and other equipment, to various aid organizations in Haiti.
 
The next phase of the NetHope deployment currently underway involved placing VSAT satellite dishes with WiFi extenders to provide wireless Internet access across a wide area.
 
In addition, Dell, HP and Intel have collectively donated 300-400 rugged laptops which NetHope is in the process of distributing to aid workers.
 
Some 5,000 solar-powered chargers have also been donated to provide much-needed power in the fuel- and electricity-starved nation.
 
The next step is to deploy a "lightweight" version of Microsoft's Sharepoint that agencies can use to communicate and collaborate on their emergency response efforts, explains Brindley. "Connectivity and collaboration are the core of what NetHope is all about," he says.
 
The agency has also developed a series of near real-time browser-based GIS mapping tools, one of which uses Microsoft's Bing mapping services, with a more sophisticated version featuring ESRI technology also in the works.
 
Blackbaud software developers are working with the agency to develop applications to collect and analyze data from the field.
 
As the reliability of cellular service in Haiti improves, NetHope will be looking to deploy wireless handhelds to its member organization as well, notes Brindley.
 
If you have skills or equipment to donate, contact NetHope.
 
The France-based agency TSF deployed an emergency team from its American base in Managua, The Philippines, to provide support for emergency telecommunications in Haiti, taking with them satellite mobile and fixed telecommunications tools.
 
McLean, VA-based satellite service provider Spacenet has ramped up its operations and support organizations to expedite delivery of fixed and transportable satellite equipment and services, and is working with partners to donate satellite equipment and space segment to various relief organizations.
 
The company has created a special toll-free hotline (800-296-5818) and website  for representatives of organizations taking part in the disaster recovery effort to inquire about Spacenet assistance.
 
Newark, CA-based Socket Mobile donated 100 of its battery-operated Mobile Power Packs to the Boone, NC-based relief agency Samaritan's Purse. The power packs are being used by the agency's medical personnel to power mobile phones, USB-based mobile medical devices and computers.
 
Mobile Apps Race
Since the earthquake, hundreds of volunteers from around the world have been working with grassroots organization CrisisCommons to develop online and mobile applications to assist relief workers in Haiti.
 
One of the first mobile applications, made available Jan. 20 for free in the iPhone and Android app stores, is a Creole-English/English-Creole dictionary that can be downloaded and used offline.
 
By Jan. 22, the app had been downloaded about 52 times for iPhones and 110 for Android devices, according to Chris Selmer, Senior Partner in Intridea, who is leading the mobile applications development efforts for CrisisCommons.
 
The next project in the works is a "We Have/We Need Exchange" which humanitarian organizations on the ground in Haiti can use to communicate needs and share resources. Android development is underway on this service.
 
The group is also working on a World Bank Disaster Assessment mobile app that will enable users document and assess damages from the earthquake.
 
The organization is particularly in need of developers for BlackBerry and Windows Mobile applications. If you have skills and would like to volunteer, visit: http://wiki.crisiscommons.org/wiki/Mobile_Development
 
CrisisCommons is working on a wide range of web-based applications that Selmer and his team will eventually be charged with mobilizing.
 
One of the biggest challenges the organization faces is "just finding out what people really need," says Selmer. "There are all sorts of ideas about things that we could build, but what are going to be useful to people?"
 
SMS Leads The Way
Much has been written about the ongoing use of SMS text messaging for fundraising, which has resulted in more than $30 million raised as of Jan. 25, 2010. (Text "HAITI" to 90999 to make a donation).
 
However, SMS is also being used to get aid directly to those in need in Haiti.
 
Ushahidi, an organization that focuses on crowdsourcing crisis information, is aggregating information received via SMS so that people can post their needs and aid workers can respond.
 
Before cellular service was restored, the organization had set up an international text number via Clickatell that people could SMS to, explains Ory Okolloh, Executive Director at Ushahidi in Johannesburg, South Africa.
 
Pieter de Villiers, founder/CEO of Clickatell, Redwood City, CA, elaborates: "In order to send an SMS, the bandwidth needed is very, very minimal. Even if there is connectivity just for a brief moment, the message will get through. Also, the saving grace of SMS is the store and forward nature. If you send a message and you don't have coverage for hours it will still be delivered the next time there is a little window of coverage. Final delivery is entirely dependant upon having 'some' mobile coverage, if you never have any, it will not operate."
 
Ushahidi takes an open approach to its platform. "Data on the Ushahidi platform is available for anybody to take," says Okolloh. "We've got RSS feeds, we've got an open API; people can just scrape that information right off and do whatever they need to do with it."
 
Among the organizations doing just that are the United Nations Foundation, Plan International, the Clinton Foundation, the U.S. State Department and others, according to Okolloh.
 
"The challenge now is having them get back to us and let us know what they've responded to so that people can know a particular need has been met, and having our data used in a more coordinated fashion," she says.
 
On average, approximately 500 incidents are being reported via SMS daily in Haiti, says Okolloh. She adds: "The Ushahidi platform aggregates information received via different modes, e.g Email, SMS, twitter and web reports. The information is then collated into a dashboard where the administrator of the instance or group of approved volunteers can approve the message (in essence geolocating it on a map) and thus making it display on the map front end as a red dot and/or icon. Each report includes location, date, time and description and allows users to posts additional information as comments. Reports are also flagged as 'verified' or 'unverified.' The team is working on adding another flag for 'Acted upon.' The platform is Free and Open Source Software that is continually being improved upon by programmers around the world."
 
Technical details are available at http://wiki.ushahidi.com
 
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