Mission 4636- just one part of the story that has captured the attention of billions across the world in the opening months of 2010: namely, the tragedy and continued devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti on January 12.
More than 200,000 people were killed in the aftermath, while several hundred thousands are in critical need of food and medical attention. More than one million people remain homeless.
Although the circumstances are horrific, the Haiti earthquake has highlighted the evolutionary digital changes that have taken place since the last comparable deadly natural disaster (the Indian Ocean earthquake of 2004).
The unprecedented media coverage of the Caribbean island from mid-January to mid-February was triggered by an initial surge of interest generated by parachute journalism, a marked increase in citizen journalism and the advancing levels of technology in social media.
While the South-Asian tsunami of 2004 displayed many of the aforementioned hallmarks of post-modern global news reporting, the increased use of social media since then has changed the way we understand news and how we respond to it.
Crowdsourcing relief responses has also changed the way we individually react to disasters such as Haiti’s earthquake. While the global sales of charity records from the Simon Cowell School of Music are all well and good, projects such as Mission 4636 can have a far greater immediate effect.
Mission 4636 was a text-alert service that was made available to the Haitian people to enable them to indicate to the authorities immediate problems, emergencies and the resources needed to combat various aspects of the crisis.
The Mission 4636 process:
1) A Haitian with a need sends an SMS to the 4636 short code.
2) The SMS is then forwarded onto CrowdFlower.com (or other host Crowdsourcing platform).
3) A Haitian volunteer or staff member logs onto the website and translates the SMS, adding meta and geospatial information.
4) After translation, the SMS is turned into a report that goes to multiple organisations in the crisis response and recovery effort (e.g. U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Southern Command).
The Crowdsourcing process began at stage two. ‘CrowdFlower’, an American Crowdsourcing company, offered to act as one of the project’s host Crowdsource platforms for a period of 10 days. The company dispensed with its usual business and distibuted messages to relevant support networks of NGO’s, volunteers, world government agencies and other relevant parties.
Significantly, the vast majority of the messages arriving to 4636 required translation by the host Crowdsourcer before being sent on to another party. As so many of the texts were written in Creole, the Haitiain national language, Crowdsourcing provided a highly efficient system to unite Creole speaking volunteers from across the world.
The volunteers may have been sitting at their computer in New Zealand, South Korea, Greece or Canada, but they collectively processed the messages, translated them, tracked the location of the text message and forwarded them to the relevant third party who could provide the necessary aid.
Describing the context of the early incoming messages, Lukas Biewald, the CEO of CrowdFlower, said:
“It was immediately clear that people were using this system to send absolutely urgent and heartbreaking messages. Here’s a few examples:
“I am in the town of Jeremie in the Grand’Anse Department. My boyfriend died, I’m eight months pregnant, I don’t have any money. Whatever you can do for me will be a deliverance.”
“My name is J. W. my brother is working in Unicef and I live in Carfour 11 Alentyerye I have two people that is still alive under the building still ! Send Help!”
Is this a future template for how we react to future disasters? Yes- if the necessary resources are already in place. There is little point processing a request for water from a community of 2000 people if there is no water provision available to start with. Crowdsourcing cannot physically provide the relief required, but it can certainly aid the organisation of such efforts.
For more information on Mission 4636, watch the video here.