Creating a Haiti Collection for Medium
Just over three years ago, Haiti was in ruins and the eyes of the world were riveted on the tiny nation as the international community rallied a massive response to the disaster.
At the time, I was editor of Wired.com, and we grappled with how to cover what was sure to be a story unfolding not just over weeks or months, but decades. We all felt this was a major story not just for the usual suspects — the NGOs and Beltway bandits lining up to provide aid and, in some cases, scour profits from human tragedy and misery — but to the tech community at large. Silicon Valley’s creativity, humanitarianism and optimism, surely, could be harnessed to change the conversation not only about Haiti but the broader failings of international relief.
Haiti Rewired was the result, a community site now more than 2,000 members strong, and still reporting the story. And not just writing about it, but doing. Thanks to the efforts of numerous people involved in the project, including broadband provider Multilink Haiti, the community helped acquire donated equipment and install a free public WiFi hotspot at the Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince in 2010. A group of engineers and architects at Haiti Rewired adapted an earthquake-resistance building manual created in Chile to conditions in Haiti, and translated it into Creole and French.
I’ve moved on from Wired, but the problems of Haiti are just as raw now as then. Medium can and should support a community of writers who are committed to keeping the story of Haiti’s struggles and recovery in the public eye.
Below is my launch post for Haiti Rewired, published on Jan. 22, 2010.
“Quake-ravaged Haiti faces a long-term emergency, one that will not end in a few weeks when the media frenzy dies down. And it's clear the crisis will require more radical solutions than short-term relief groups can provide.
Will foreign aid to Haiti fail this time? Or will the tragedy bring with it a chance to reboot one of the world's poorest countries -- and rethink the the traditional ways of delivering aid and development? Port-au-Prince may be effectively razed and rebuilt from the ground up, and many other communities will be starting over from scratch.
Paradoxically, the disaster may prove to be a unique chance for an architectural and communications reboot of an entire country.
That's why we've created this community, Haiti Rewired. We believe that better answers to the difficult questions could be created through the collaboration of technologists, researchers, geographers, infrastructure specialists, aid groups and others. Our writers and editors can aggregate information, report new stories and add to the discussion, but the focus of this effort is squarely on the thoughts, plans and actions of our contributors.
We don't have the answers. But we want to test (five) simple principles that could transform not only Haiti, but the world's response to crisis.
1. Collaboration. The events unfolding in Haiti bring together an unusual coalition: non-governmental organizations, the military, international organizations, state actors. To avoid waste, duplication of effort and confusion, they will have to break down cultural and institutional barriers, and start sharing everything: imagery, sensor data, on-the-ground intel. Old models of classification and need-to-know must be dumped.
2. Transparency. Haitians are rightly disillusioned with aid: promises unfulfilled by donors, corruption and graft by officials, a general lack of accountability when it comes to aid. While there may always be inefficiency, waste and corruption must be tackled. It might not sound like the most important element of the recovery, but we need data-based metrics. Funding will be tracked; aid will be measured; disclosure shall be the rule.
3. Innovation. Solutions for Haiti's problems will have to blend time-tested ideas with new ways of doing things that have been enabled by technology. Transparency and collaboration have become radically easier with new communication and networking technologies. On the other hand, these same tools can fail us during major disasters. How can we incorporate and build new technological systems for Haiti that are both efficient and resilient?
4. Design. Rebuilding Haiti will be a test in the politics of architecture. How can planners, urbanists, architects, construction companies and local authorities come together to design a better Port-au-Prince on the rubble of the earthquake?
5. DIY. The old model of The Development Set -- highly paid expat consultants who jet around from crisis to crisis -- needs to be jettisoned. This could be rebuilding on the cheap and that could be a good thing. Empowering local communities, avoiding Beltway banditry and giving communities control of their own affairs might generate real results. Can smarter, locally rooted ideas provide immediate shelter for thousands in need and lay the foundation for the city's seismic, social and economic future?
In the short term, the story is about survival: basic needs like food and first aid. But as the weeks turn to months, any sustained relief effort that wants to leave Haiti better off will have to solve a host of difficult technological, infrastructural and architectural problems. How should food and water be distributed? What type of communications infrastructure works best during the emergency and thereafter? What types of housing can be built quickly? How can health care triage be improved?
The specific answers to those questions -- the networks that get pressed into service, the apps that get built -- will pattern the future of Haiti. Can foreign countries come together with Haitians to build effective, resilient infrastructure for a country that's long needed it?
We know from the responses to Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean Tsunami that the old models for creating and distributing information about rebuilding won't work. A monthlong flood of information, money and particular kinds of aid fades quickly as newsier news shoulders aside the still-unfolding long story. But once the story has moved on, we plan to be here.
We hope you will, too.”