Communicating after a Disaster: Lessons from Haiti

Ushahidi’s page for the Haiti earthquake has become an important reference for government, aid workers and media.

On January 12, a devastating earthquake struck Haiti. Five months on, it’s time to look at how the media responded to the crisis and what role technology and communications played in helping address the information needs of Haitian communities in the aftermath of this tragedy. What worked, what didn’t and what are the lessons we can learn to improve rapid response in the future?

Earlier this week, Knight Foundation and an interagency working group called Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) sponsored a meeting to consider these questions. The gathering brought together Haitian journalists, international media representatives, development and humanitarian groups, technologists and response teams. Participating groups included: Association of Independent Haitian Media, BBC World Service Trust, CDAC Haiti, Global Voices, Haitian Journalists Association, InSTEDD, International Media Support (IMS), Internews, Irish Red Cross Society, Microsoft, Quartier par Quartier (QpQ), Reporters Sans Frontieres, The Miami Herald, Thomson Reuters Foundation, U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and Ushahidi.

Participants reviewed the successes and challenges of digital and traditional media efforts following the earthquake to understand what can be done better next time the international community faces a similar humanitarian disaster. And, as Haiti rebuilds, how can international agencies further incorporate media development in their reconstruction plans?

Alongside traditional media efforts, in particular community radio, a new set of social media tools, citizen media efforts, and mapping systems were used to gather and disseminate information to individuals and media outlets. These tools ‘ which create both new possibilities and complex challenges ‘ largely did not exist following similar disasters, such as the catastrophic earthquake in Pakistan in 2005.

The emergence of new media applications in disaster-related communication efforts raises questions about the interaction among technology groups, humanitarian relief agencies and local media, and requires new partnerships and systems for open collaboration. Participants at the meeting discussed these and other challenges: how new tools and technologies can be better used to enable two-way communication between local communities and responders; and how these tools can be used to strengthen the role of local media during crises.

A series of recommendations generated from the discussion in Miami will be published later this summer as part of a Knight-supported report on Media, Information Systems and Communities: Lessons from Haiti. Today in Washington, D.C., the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) is conducting a follow-up panel discussion to the event in Miami, with some of the same participants, on the role of media in humanitarian crises.