Technology And Disaster: Helping Haiti

Just moments after the earthquake struck Haiti, eyewitness accounts and photos of the devastation spread quickly on Twitter and Facebook. Cell phone carriers made it easy to text donations. And Google created a Haiti missing person's widget, which allows anyone in the world to search a database of missing people in Haiti. Robert Siegel talks to Omar Gallaga, who covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman, about technology and disaster.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Today, technology and disaster. In Haiti, tech has played a vital role in relief and recovery efforts. Moments after the quake struck, eyewitness accounts and photos of the devastation spread quickly on Facebook and Twitter. Just today, President Obama sent his first official tweet from the headquarters of the American Red Cross, where he was touring its disaster operation center. We've also seen phone carriers make it easy to text donations. And Google created a Haiti missing-persons widget, which allows anyone in the world to search a database of missing people in Haiti.

Omar Gallaga joins us now to talk more about this. He is the technology-culture reporter for the Austin American-Statesman. Welcome back, Omar.

Mr. OMAR GALLAGA (Reporter, Technology-Culture, Austin American-Statesman): Thanks for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: And let's start with Google's missing-persons widget. How does that work?

Mr. GALLAGA: Well, a widget is a tool that can be embedded on other Web sites. So, you can just take the code and then put it on any Web site where people can get to it directly. And it's at haiticrisis.appspot.com. And what it's doing is it's aggregating all of the missing-persons databases. So, for instance, the International Committee of the Red Cross has one. What Google did was set up this widget to scrape all of the missing-persons databases, so you can type in a name or register the name of a missing person and find all of that information in one place.

SIEGEL: And do we know if indeed many families have found information about their relatives using this?

Mr. GALLAGA: I haven't heard much about that yet, but it's definitely the place to start.

SIEGEL: How has technology made fundraising for Haiti any different than for other natural disasters that came before this?

Mr. GALLAGA: Oh, you know, a little over a year ago, we talked about the way nonprofits are utilizing technology to make donations easier and also to help donors keep track of where that money is going. And this is really the first major natural disaster since then where we've seen that go into action. And I think the best example is certainly the texting campaign. As of this morning, 13 million has been raised of people texting the number 90999 and texting the word Haiti to that number.

I believe in 2009, four million had been raised for all charities for all causes. So, already just in a few days, we've already seen a huge outpouring of $10 donations through that campaign.

SIEGEL: Well, comparing what you've seen happen in response to the Haiti earthquake and, say, the tsunami in 2004, in terms of the tech community's response, how would you describe the difference?

Mr. GALLAGA: Five, six years ago in 2004 with the tsunamis, we didn't have social media. For instance, we didn't have Twitter and Facebook for people to kind of spread the word and mobilize their friends and get people involved. We weren't getting as immediate video in Twitter accounts and people kind of documenting what was happening. So, we weren't seeing as much of the devastation as quickly as we are with this incident.

And within the tech community, I mean, I'm seeing a lot of tech companies donating, but also techies coming together to find solutions to make donations easier or to find other ways to help. There was a - what's called a CrisisCamp set up over the weekend on Saturday in multiple cities and in D.C. and Silicon Valley, London, and Colorado. And this was just geeks getting together to try to find ways to do mapping or to help speed up the databases to try to make things even easier.

So, I - it's been rare that I have seen such an outpouring of help from geeks, even in the video-game world. In the game Halo 3, if you set your game avatar to a heart, the company that makes the video game will donate to Haiti relief. So, even in these quarters, where you wouldn't expect people to be involved or to donate or to care, we are seeing definitely an outpouring of support.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Omar.

Mr. GALLAGA: Thanks for having me, Robert. And, of course, we are going to be linking to all of these news events and to resources where you can find more information about this on the All Tech Considered blog at npr.org/alltech.

SIEGEL: That's Omar Gallaga, the technology-culture reporter for the Austin American-Statesman and also for All Tech Considered.

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