Professor Chan Talks about Creative Commons
12 January 2011
Jan 20: Lecture – Reflections of a Mainland Publisher
17 January 2011

Reporting the Haiti Earthquake Aftermath: Radio and Mobile Phones Were Crucial

Anne Nelson, co-author of Media, Information Systems and Communities: Lessons from Haiti, gave a lecture to JMSC students and staff on Thursday 13 January about the innovative use of both new and traditional media after last year’s earthquake in Haiti.

Anne Nelson lectures to the JMSC

Her report was for the Knight Foundation, an organisation that seeks to advance journalism in the digital age, and came out this Tuesday 11 January, 2011. The earthquake hit Haiti a year ago, on January 12, 2010.

Ivan Sigal co-authored the report with the assistance of Dean Zambrano, and it was produced with Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC).

Nelson, who started her career in journalism as a war reporter, said that she’d always been interested in human rights reporting, so was delighted to be asked to compile a report about how the media was used to help the humanitarian effort after the Haitian earthquake.

The report’s main findings are that the most effective use of media after the earthquake was a combination of the new and the old, with both radio and mobile phones playing central roles.

“In Haiti, you have, first of all, a very limited media environment,” said Nelson. “It’s predominantly radio. If you’re looking at the media environment round the world, particularly in developing countries, you cannot rule out radio.”

Radio ownership in Haiti is virtually universal; 97% of people own a radio and they also trust it as a source of information. In terms of other media, only 10% of the population have internet access, the literacy rate is very low, so information spread through print does not reach far, and television access is both low and was radically hit by the quake.

However, 3.6 million out of 9.6 million people own mobile phones. Another major finding of the report was the significant role that mobile phones played together with the crowd sourcing service, Ushahidi, a not-for-profit, interactive mapping site developed in Kenya.

Digicell, the local mobile phone service provider, was asked to provide a free SMS text service to the population using the number 4636. People could text information to that number and also receive health and other disaster-related information back. Thomson Reuters helped to collate the information and passed it onto the local radio stations that were still transmitting. In turn, these stations broadcast information in talk shows and bulletins. The radio stations’ role was instrumental in preventing panic.

The students working on Ushahidi took the locations of the SMS texts and located them on a map using GPS coordinates. In turn, this information helped to mobilise international rescue teams, including the US marines, to supply water in displaced persons camps, distribute devices to sanitise drinking water, and to police areas and ensure barricades were not blocking aid from reaching victims.

Nelson said that one of the main problems post-disaster was not a lack of information or technology but whether the relief effort used the information it received in a coordinated way.

“The technology is there,” she said. “It’s a question of creating relationships. There are lots of natural disasters that take place in areas where there are tricky situations. It’s not the technology that will hinder help; it’s the politics.”

Nelson took questions from the floor and took a particular interest in the South China Morning Post‘s use of Ushahidi to plot waste dumps in Hong Kong. She also said she thought that OpenStreetMap, a free wiki world map, would be of great use in places like China, where large areas remain unmapped, and therefore delivering aid after a disaster would prove difficult.

Haiti had showed the world that new media has an innovative and unique use during the aftermath of disasters. However, “technology is easy, community is hard,” she said.

Anne Nelson specialises in international media development and has worked extensively as an analyst, evaluator, and practitioner. She teaches at Columbia University and consults for many leading U.S. foundations. She was formerly the director of the International Programme at the Columbia School of Journalism and executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.