On Tuesday, January 12th, I heard the same news as everyone else in the world: a horrendous earthquake – 7.0 in magnitude – struck less than ten miles from the city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I felt the need to do something beyond donating money – something that would have a meaningful effect for people; something that would save lives. My husband, a nurse and former search and rescue professional, was constantly being asked if he was planning to travel to Haiti to assist with rescue efforts. In contrast, I felt less than useless.
It was hard to listen to the news of the devastation in Haiti, and know that my skills wouldn’t be needed until the rescue was done, and even then, there are a lot of people out there with more practical public administration skills that would help more than mine would. I struggled to think of a way that I could be useful. I couldn’t possibly imagine what I could do from 1,500 miles away.
I received an email from my agency director, a few days after the earthquake. The email outlined some ways that people from our agency could assist efforts in Haiti, including Doctors without Borders, the Red Cross, etc. At the end of the email was a link to Crisis Commons, looking for people with technical skills to meet on an appointed Saturday for an all day session of “civic hacking”. They were looking for people with all kinds of technical skills, including telecommunications, networking, and yes, mapping skills.
Along with other like-minded technical professionals, I spent the day at “Crisis Camp” mapping roads, buildings, and other features that would help rescue organizations like the Fairfax County Urban Search & Rescue Team (USA-1) navigate through areas that were damaged or otherwise inaccessible. Along with 20+ other people at our particular event, and many people around the world, I continued the process of building an open source map of Haiti using Open Street Map. (According to some sources, there are no complete, current maps of Haiti, aside from some old maps that the CIA created at least 20 years ago. This is the first effort of this kind, possibly ever.)
The Crisis Camp was much more than just mapping. There were people building language translating applications, helping develop a wi-fi network in Haiti, and many other extremely technical projects. It was amazing to me to see all of these technology wizards, project managers, and other interested folk working together to accomplish feats that would take years and many millions of dollars in the “regular” world. There have been two other Crisis Camps in DC (that I know of), many others across the U.S. and internationally, and more events to come.
I feel good about my efforts with Crisis Commons. I have done something useful that has meaning beyond this single event. I have learned some new technical skills, and gained experience with a technology/tool that will have an impact on other similar efforts,and in my regular work. Out of tragedy comes action and education. I could not ask for a better way to make a difference in the world.