How social media is changing the aid business

It is not just donations but internet volunteers who are helping Haiti.
A man walks among the rubble that was his home in the Fort Nationale neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince in March 2010. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

The challenge Haiti faces to rebuilt its shattered communities may be monumental but, at the same time, the relief effort has received unprecedented support worldwide.

What's more, the manner in which that support was garnered — particularly the magnitude of the volunteer effort and the ways it was solicited — suggest the world of aid is experiencing dramatic change.

In Canada and other countries, the outpouring of individual support following the Jan. 12 earthquake was so strong that governments decided to ride the wave, in the process increasing previously announced contributions to match what was coming in from individual donors. 

Canadians made $113 million in private donations to Haiti and the federal government will now match that amount.

In the U.S., almost half of all households donated to private aid efforts for Haiti, according to the U.S. government. Key to the fund-raising in the U.S. and elsewhere have been the internet and text messaging donations via cellphones.

The American Red Cross took just three hours to launch a program for people to donate from their mobile phone. Over $30 million has been raised this way, with $10 million donated in the first 48 hours by people simply texting HAITI to 90999.

Social media were also crucial in spreading the word about the Red Cross program and other aid efforts for Haiti. 

The media information company Nielsen analysed the data in the immediate aftermath of the quake and concluded: "While most online consumers rely on traditional media for coverage of the quake, they are turning to Twitter and blogs to share information, react to the situation and rally support."

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed, "the spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet."

Global networking

Canadian internet expert Don Tapscott  has been studying this phenomenon for some time now.

Canadian internet guru Don Tapscott. (Robin Rowland/CBC)

In his new book, Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World, Tapscott explains that we are at a turning point in human history.

Old models and old institutions, everything from the nation state to the media, have stalled, he says.

"Thanks to the internet, there are now new global networks that are multi-stakeholder and that are beginning to address global problems in new ways," he said in an interview. 

"These are networks that involve governments, private companies, civil society organisations and a new fourth pillar of society — individuals.

"These individuals now, at their fingertips, have a powerful tool for finding out what's going on, for organizing a collective response to something and for participating in solving problems."

Changing aid work

Aid organizations are not immune from this change, Tapscott said. "We are in a period right now that's sort of like the Big Bang. There's all these pieces flying everywhere and nobody really knows how it's going to settle down."

For him, though, one thing is clear: International aid — indeed, international politics — is going to have to "take into account these new models of global problem solving where you have multi-stakeholder networks."

Journalist and blogger Jeff Jarvis, the author of the 2009 book, What Would Google do?, marvels at the way the internet "enabled people to come together and help Haiti."

"The Internet is a connection machine, it enables people to organize, it enables people to find each other, to use the tools that exist," Jarvis said in an interview.

In his view, however, the internet, "is just a tool, it can't solve the problems in and of itself but it can help people who are trying to solve the problems do it better."

Online tools

Many online techniques have been used to help Haiti.

For example, mapping tools have been used to show the destruction and, later, sources of aid and accommodation.

One key tool in particular is Ushahidi, first used to map "crowd-sourced" reports of violence in Kenya after the disputed 2007 election.

Uploading to Ushadidi, a mapping site that tracked the injured and the fatalities following the Haitian earthquake in 2010. A volunteer is using Ushahidi at the Toronto CrisisCamp on February 27, 2010. (Ann McDonald/

In Haiti and, later, in Chile, it was quickly deployed to connect earthquake victims with emergency workers. 

Another useful tool is OpenStreetMap, a volunteer, collaborative project that uses satellite imagery. In the days after the quake it was especially helpful for aid workers trying to make their way through the destruction.

So were translation tools for French and Creole, as well as crowd-sourcing systems in which missing persons data is processed by volunteers outside Haiti, using their personal computers.

Also important was image tagging, whereby photos from media and photo-sharing websites were uploaded and "tagged" by volunteers anywhere in the world. These tags then allowed search engines to hunt through the images for missing persons, and match people or connect them on the ground.

'Crisis camps'

Aid organizations in Haiti as well as international organizations like The World Bank have been using the results of these volunteer efforts for everything from pulling survivors out of the rubble to plotting strategies for rebuilding.

Almost immediately following the quake, groups of volunteers came together via social media to use these tools to try to help.

So-called crisis camps sprang up in cities around the world, including Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary. Over 1,500 people worldwide volunteered to help with the networking.

These camps worked with groups that are providing direct aid to Haiti to get them information and tools they needed.

"This group has pioneered a new kind of aid organization," Crisis Commons posted on its web site.

"What we have achieved is this idea and this germination that we can help in a different way," Heather Leson, the volunteer CrisisCamp coordinator for Toronto, told CBC News.

"It's a whole new ballgame. It's a new way to collect donations better. It's a new way to get the message out and fast, a new way to build community and volunteers." 

For veteran internet observers such as Tapscott, the Haiti efforts show the medium can "marshal the collective ingenuity of society to solve problems on a time-scale that matters." 

Tapscott was part of a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month, called, "The Power of Social Networks."

The theme of Davos this year was "Rethink, redesign, rebuild the world," and Tapscott said he was encouraged that there seemed to be an understanding of this "new paradigm" involving social media and their many uses in helping places like Haiti.

"There is a whole new paradigm, this multi-stakeholder network that will enable us to solve global problems," said Tapscott, "and then plunked right in the middle of the discussion is this actual example of this occurring."