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Haiti Disaster Finds Obama Tech Corps in Familiar Territory

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, January 15 2010

Help for Haiti: Learn What You Can DoWith all due sensitivity, the tremendous disaster unfolding in Haiti as a result of Tuesday's earthquake just outside Port-au-Prince is putting the new media and tech experts inside the Obama Administration in what is a familiar place for the many campaign veterans among them: raising money online (often from small donors) and using every tool they know to get word out as quickly and efficiently as possible. But much is new and untested about this situation. And like the rest of us scrambling to confront the Haiti disaster, they're also often making it up as they go along.

The Obama White House has, for its part, taken on the job of sharing the presidential perspective on the crisis, posting footage from briefings with President Obama and, for example, shooting YouTube videos with First Lady Michelle Obama. The White House is also acting as an online clearinghouse, attempting to point to work being done both in and out of government. The latter includes the work being done by the William J. Clinton Foundation to provide relief in Haiti.

Often the work inside government that the White House is pointing to is the efforts of Hillary Clinton's State Department, which perhaps has the most dense collection of new media innovators working in the federal government today.

The State Department has, as has the White House, been aggressively promoting the chance for people to kick in mobile donations to the Red Cross by texting the keyword HAITI to 90999. That call has been amplified by countless repostings on Twitter and other social networks. Giving takes just a few clicks; micro-donation of just $10 is added to your cell phone bill. mGive -- a project of Mobile Accord, a company that has been working closely with the State Department in its mobile efforts, such as its cell-phone based social network in Pakistan -- has arranged for 100% of the donation to go directly to the Red Cross. (Don't worry, in other words, about your cell phone carrier taking a cut.)

Most cell phone companies, it seems, limit text donations to just two or three a month. But as the Obama campaign found, even small dollar donations can pile up when a large donor base is tapped. The Red Cross reported earlier today that more than $8 million U.S. had been raised for Haiti relief through SMS donations to 90999 thus far.

mGive has put together a map showing the state-by-state breakdown of where in the U.S. the text message donations to Haiti are flowing from. (Perhaps it's a stretch, but the map does bring to mind the giant map of the U.S. displayed on the Mile High Stadium JumboTron during the Democratic National Convention as a way developing some friendly competition based on which state's supporters had added the most cell phone numbers to the campaign's text messaging database.)

In the early going, the State Department turned to its Twitter account at @dipnote to spread high-quality information out quickly. Early tweets provided a first look at what diplomatic officials were seeing on the ground and offered some degree of clarity on a chaotic situation. "Haitian government," read one tweet, "is in charge of Haitian territory." A sad tweet reported the death of a Cultural Affairs Officer in Port-Au-Prince.

More recently, State.gov/haitiquake has been aggregating the State Department's perspectives and resources on Haiti. Those in the U.S. looking for loved ones in Haiti have the option of emailing the State Department at Haiti-Earthquake@State.Gov with details on just who it is they are looking for. But there's also a more interactive option.

When disasters have struck in recent years, we've seen many volunteer technologists and organizers put their efforts towards building social tools to connect those effected with their friends and family. We've seen, for example, the Hurricane Information Center, spearheaded by NPR's Andy Carvin, for example. Some volunteer technologists have been working this week on HaitianQuake.com to do the same. Those efforts were also marked by the question of, how do those people who could use these tools come to know -- and trust -- the tools? Here, we're seeing the State Department giving special attention to one person-finder tool by promoting Google's Crisis Response app (Haiti.appspot.com). The information in Google's Haiti isn't vetted in any way, it seems. Anyone can submit a report, and anyone can use the database to track down someone affected by the earthquake.

Things like cell phones and the Internet can seem relatively unimportant when disaster hits, especially in the early hours and days when the priorities are search-and-rescue, food, water, and shelter from the elements. But the reality of disasters is that communications take on enormous importance very quickly. At least one group, Télécoms Sans Frontière (modeled, of course, on Doctors without Borders), is reporting that it has sent teams to Haiti to set up emergency satellite and land-based networks so that people can once again call one another, connect up with the resources they need, and begin to direct help those who need it most. That helps to reaffirm something that the State Department has been enthusiastically pushing as part of its "21st Century Statecraft" drive. Not only is it easier to help people who are knitted together through technology, and it's easier for them to -- as the people of Haiti ultimately will have to -- help themselves.

Related: A techPresident interview with U.S. FEMA Director Craig Fugate on 21st century disaster response.

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