I was inspired, some months ago, when reading about a group of students at the Fletcher School of Tufts University who worked around the clock with ordinary laptop computers to save lives in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. Calling it operation Thunderclap, the students combed through Twitter posts, email messages, news bulletins, and other internet communications (much of which had to be translated from the Haitian creole into English) to locate victims and assess their statuses. The students were able, in many cases, to assist on-the-ground SAR teams by providing GPS coordinates and details of injuries. In one case, a student was responsible for the rescue of several children in a collapsed building. In all, new humanitarian computing technologies were used by non-experts from across geographic and cultural boundaries to lend a compassionate hand.
For those of us who dream big about helping our students see the connections between the work they do in communications classrooms and the big, wide world, this was big win. We all sense that our work is important, of course–that it has application to things beyond the classroom, changes lives, enhances critical thinking, makes us better citizens, and so on–but when student writing has a direct, personal stake in the survival of another human being, it burns with a whole new vitality and urgency.
So I’ve been researching crowd-sourcing crisis response technologies because I hope that my own students might be able to use them in the writing classes I teach. We don’t need (and I hope never to have to see) another mega-disaster like the Haiti earthquake. Far less damaging and dramatic incidents may be equally good at helping us to promote the humanitarian flower at the end of the education vine. The important thing is that new, free technologies are available that have the power to reinvigorate our raison d’être. Tools like Ushahidi; various Humanitarian FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) project tools like Sahana; Reuters AlertNet; and virtual “datascapes” available in Second Life’s Daden Prime sim to name just a few, are lenses through which our students may more immediately see their unquestionable connection to every other person on the planet.
Age and experience is more likely to understand why the bell tolls for all of us, but humanitarian computing technologies are obsoleting the familiar question But what does (insert the name of any “far away” country here) have to do with me? The question we might more likely ask now is What doesn’t it have to do with you and me? A Tufts student puts it more eloquently than I:
It’s because of that empathy, because we care about people we’ll never meet, that this effort [to rescue the Haiti earthquake victims] is taking place at all. It’s because that empathy, too, that I feel almost traumatized by proxy. I’m much less overwhelmed than I was at first, but as I told a friend on the phone the other day, I’m not sure I’m cut out for this. I want to use my life for helping people, but I swear I remember every message I’ve read. They’re imprinted on my brain. The Haiti earthquake is not a remote disaster anymore, not just another charity cause I’ll forget in six months or a year. It’s a stream of individual voices. I lie in bed at night wondering if the family that just had a new baby on Wednesday has found anything to eat.
These humanitarian technologies, excelling at data fusion and visualization, provide an immediate sense of connectedness that overrides geographic distance–and complacency. If you think you are interested in assessing these technologies for yourself, please check out my Delicious bookmark feed.
- Haiti’s earthquake rubble remains (bbc.co.uk)
- Haiti rubble art (theworld.org)
- Editorial: Helping others important both at home and abroad (knoxnews.com)
- Analysis: Are humanitarians learning the lessons from Haiti? (yubanet.com)