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1/19/2010
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Tech Volunteers Aiding Haiti Relief Efforts

CrisisCommons is quickly organizing techies to lend IT and software development skills to the earthquake relief effort.

They might not be able to pick up rubble and carry away bodies, but software developers and tech-savvy individuals around the world are beginning to organize to help with the Haiti relief effort

Among those taking the lead is a grassroots effort called the CrisisCommons, which hosted several hastily organized events last weekend in several cities where developers and others came together to, among other things, layer current information on collaborative maps of Haiti and develop a Craigslist-style online exchange to identify and solve relief needs on the ground.

Despite announcing the concept of these CrisisCamps in a conference call only last Wednesday, almost 400 people showed up at events in Washington, D.C., Silicon Valley, and beyond over the weekend. More camps are scheduled for this weekend in places as far-flung as Brooklyn, Portland, and London.

The goal, CrisisCommons co-founder Noel Dickover said in an interview, is to provide NGOs and others in Haiti with better information and improved situational awareness with help from a volunteer army of geeks. "We can have a real impact as NGOs get on the ground," he said. "If we can improve situational awareness and information sharing, we can help NGOs have better performance across the board."

Dickover, along with Andrew Turner and Heather Blanchard, developed CrisisCommons last Spring, and held an event last summer where developers and others discussed, among other things, how to help displaced refugees in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, however, the group and its organizing power are being tested by its first real crisis.

Among the projects under way is the Haiti OpenStreetMap, a GPS-compatible street map of Haiti that's been vastly improved by volunteers since the earthquake occurred.

There's also the We Have, We Need Exchange, which Crisis Commons refers to as an "online marketplace for the exchange of resources and services to suit the needs of the NGOs in Haiti." Other volunteers are working to create a timeline of events and a wiki hosted by National Public Radio, an English to Creole dictionary for IPhones and Android mobile devices, and a system to use Twitter messages to ask for or offer assistance to those in need.

The Sunlight Foundation, an open government group, hosted the D.C. event on Saturday. "We've been working a lot at Sunlight Labs to get developers to organize and work together in volunteer communities. Developers may not be competent with a saw, but are starting to realize they have a skill they can contribute," says Clay Johnson, director of Sunlight Labs. "The tools are available, and methodologies like agile project management have been popularized that can facilitate this."

It remains unclear how much agencies on the ground are using or know about the tools being developed by CrisisCamp volunteers. However, government agencies were also among the attendees of last weekend's CrisisCamps, and Dickover says organizers have been engaged with the United Nations, U.S. Department of State, and US AID, among other groups.

CrisisCommons isn't alone in developing tech tools to help with the relief effort. Ushaahidi, a group that got together to map post-election violence in Kenya in early 2008, the International Community of Crisis Mappers and InSTEDD have been carrying out its own online efforts. For example, Ushahidi, InSTEDD, and Thompson Reuters launched a disaster information service including local SMS short code for people in Haiti to text emergency needs.

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