Technology saves lives. In matters of healthcare, that fact is self-evident. But it’s less common to hear about how gadgets and software help mitigate calamitous events. One case study springs to mind instantly. Just barely two weeks into 2010, in the late afternoon on the Island of Haiti, misfortune struck in the form of a once-in-a-century earthquake that altered the course of this developing region for the next decade.

The 7.0 magnitude quake occurred just outside the capital of Port Au Prince, the largest earthquake the island experienced since the late 18th Century. In the following days, the island was rocked with several major aftershocks, two of which nearly topped the magnitude of the actual quake. The capital city was hardest hit, and major sections of this city center were leveled by the series of tremors.

What ensued was weeks of chaos that left the island devastated and lacking in a variety of essential emergency services. While official death tolls were difficult to tabulate given the scope of the destruction, the Haitian government estimated more than 300,000 were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced as small towns and villages scrambled to create makeshift hospitals and distribution centers for food, water, medical aid, and information.

Yet in the middle of something so catastrophic there was a beacon that saved lives that otherwise may have been lost and helped bring critical services to this wounded island. Crisis mapping, facilitated by the technology of the day, put power in the hands of the seemingly powerless and helped pull the Island of Haiti from the depths of disaster.

What is Crisis Mapping?

In a basic, nuts-and-bolts definition, crisis mapping is the leveraging of digital outreach tools and platforms like social media combined with various geolocating technologies such as Google Maps to help triangulate and coordinate responses to natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or other large-scale incidents that threaten densely populated areas.

Shared location-based data on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram about open or nearby pharmacies, shelters, food distribution centers, and other essential services provide those afflicted by any given incident with real-time updates on the goods and services they need and where they can obtain them.

In addition, the crowd-sourced nature of this information allows for ease of sharing throughout personal social networks, thus amplifying the message to as many people as possible across an impacted region. Plus, this information can also be harnessed by governmental agencies to assist with the coordination of rescue efforts from sources who are closest to the scene.

Though crisis mapping was initially popularized with the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, subsequent iterations of crisis mapping have also demonstrated how private citizens nearest to the center of an attack or disaster orchestrated organized responses to events in ways that both saved lives and reduced the sheer number of lives in deadly peril.

The technological components for an effective crisis mapping structure include an open-access platform for information dissemination and location-based check-ins (i.e. social media but also text messages or other digital transmissions) as well as a digital mapping tool to help collect and display large amount of geographic information — the tool used in the Haiti earthquake was a fee-based dashboard service called Ushahidi, while other free tools such as Google Maps Engine Lite and Stweet come prepopulated with emergency response information and a social media integration respectively.

The Haiti Crisis Map

In the hours following the Haiti quake, blogger and digital humanitarian Patrick Meier felt he needed to do something to help the more than 100,000 feared dead, many of whom were his close friends living on the island at the time. Using the data collection and dashboard service Ushahidi, Meier began a non-government, crowd-sourced effort to create a holistic crisis map of the hardest hit regions of Haiti to help those on the ground access life-saving resources.

From his home in the U.S., Meier launched his digital rescue efforts by mapping tweets showing open pharmacies and other medical aid locations where residents required the most assistance. Using an SMS request line and a translation program that allowed English-speaking first responders to interpret French Creole tweets and texts, he amplified the areas in most need and increased the reach of broadcasts for those seeking shelter, food and water, and other necessities.

Within the first 24 hours of the earthquake, the Haiti crisis map has grown its reach and sheer number of on-the-ground contributors to such a degree that Meier needed technological assistance to facilitate the mountains of information and data flooding into his digital architecture. To further complicate efforts, much of the Haitian capital was unmapped by Google or other satellite mapping services due to the lack of modern roads and infrastructure, which was now exacerbated due to the quake damage.

According to a 2017 article in National Geographic Magazine, Meier and more than 100 Tufts University undergraduate and graduate students (Meier was also a Tufts student at the time) created a 24/7 surveillance system where information was monitored and aggregated in real-time on social media and other geolocating channels to create a live map of Haiti with more than 2,000 individual reports from those on the struggling island.

Along with later-stage involvement from the U.S. Military in terms of rescue and aid distribution, Meier and his volunteers were not only able to provide a digital lifeline to those coping in the staggering aftermath of the earthquake, but they also provided an in-the-moment digital document of the durability of the human spirit.

The Future of Crisis Mapping?

What is the future of crisis mapping? The tragic part is that we may not entirely know until the next seismic crisis takes place. But looking at the last 18 months as the world has struggled against the scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that crisis mapping in this case has taken the form of COVID test registries, infections maps, movements and currents of the virus, and predictive analytics as to where and when spikes in infection rates may strike next.

But what is abundantly clear is that the continued development of technology (in particular personal, handheld technology like smartphones, tablets, wearable tech like smartwatches, and other micro components or devices) will only heighten the ways human beings can respond and perhaps even someday plan for crises.

If information is power and we are more digitally connected to one another than ever before, it is safe to say we are better equipped than to harness this information and deploy its power in the service of keeping the world’s citizens safer than at any point in history.

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