Kate Perino is a Sophomore at Tufts University majoring in English. She originates from Maryland.
During winter break, I happened upon a news site mentioning the Fletcher school. The article was about a group of Tufts grad students who got together with their laptops in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake and began sifting through text messages and Twitter feeds directly from Haiti. They were compiling information for relief organizations, to help them save lives and coordinate resource distribution. In some cases, the students were reporting medical emergencies and actually locating people trapped in buildings. The article said they planned to continue as long as they had volunteers.
I was instantly determined to get involved—it sounded like a really innovative, relevant way to help out—so I attended a training session the first weekend of the semester, January 23. I found out that I was becoming a volunteer with a group called Ushahidi. Ushahidi began in Kenya when people posted real-time coverage of post-election violence and unrest on the Internet. It’s about the impact of crowdsourcing, when ordinary people use technology for a common goal.
You can see on www.haiti.ushahidi.com just how much data has been compiled in one place from myriad sources, thousands and thousands of pieces forming a single picture. Even after looking at the report map countless times, I’m still amazed by its sheer scope. I’ve been on the SMS mapping team for one week, now. That means I go through text messages from Haiti, translated into English by Creole-speaking volunteers, and find GPS coordinates that people on the ground can use.
The very first day, I worked on my first SMS-based report for over 45 minutes. Eventually I had to give up. I couldn’t find a location based on the message because there wasn’t enough information. When I asked a more experienced volunteer for help, she said, “It turns out that way sometimes.” She told me not to get discouraged, to focus on the messages that provide enough information to pin down a location.
Even when you get street names and landmarks, though, it’s challenging: many areas in Haiti lack street labels on the maps, and some places are called by more than one name. Some place names are common, so I might end up with looking at fifteen places called Bel Air, scattered across the country. Sometimes, names are misspelled in the text message and I end up having to guess. Is the text message directing me to Rue Dupuy indicating a place called Rue Depuy, Dupuis, or Rue du Pais?
Finding coordinates is like puzzle solving, combining experience, a little creativity and a lot of raw determination. It’s an amazing feeling every time I manage to track down precise coordinates. On a very basic level, it means that one person’s call for help didn’t go unheard. We haven’t let them fall by the wayside. Over and over I get confirmation that our system is working. We really do improve the chances of people trying to stay alive. The messages of gratitude and encouragement help offset the emotional impact of the job.
And there is, unavoidably, an emotional drain. Last weekend, I looked up from my screen to realize it was already Sunday night. I’d gone five hours with one quick break to stretch my legs, and was dizzy with all the data I’d sifted through. I packed up and left, and realized that I was actually shaking. It’s hard to keep some distance and emotional stability when you read message after message saying, “Please, there are children, we need a place to sleep, when is help coming, have we been forgotten? God, there’s no food.”
It’s hard to put Haiti out of my mind when I leave the situation room, hard to focus on other things and balance crisis response with the demands of classes and real life. It’s because of that empathy, because we care about people we’ll never meet, that this effort is taking place at all. It’s because that empathy, too, that I feel almost traumatized by proxy. I’m much less overwhelmed than I was at first, but as I told a friend on the phone the other day, I’m not sure I’m cut out for this. I want to use my life for helping people, but I swear I remember every message I’ve read. They’re imprinted on my brain. The Haiti earthquake is not a remote disaster anymore, not just another charity cause I’ll forget in six months or a year. It’s a stream of individual voices. I lie in bed at night wondering if the family that just had a new baby on Wednesday has found anything to eat.
For all the heartache, the past week has been nothing short of inspiring. There’s a strong undercurrent of hope in the Situation Room at The Fletcher School. There’s a sense of purpose and positive energy, even some humor to complement the gravity with which all the volunteers approach the task of saving lives. I never truly understood before just how powerfully disaster does draw people together, from all parts of the globe and all backgrounds. Seeing it here is enough to make me believe that it will get better. Things are bad in Haiti, I know. It won’t get fixed all at once, and not today. But it will, because people are working together. And that’s enough to change the world.
All Tufts volunteers who choose to help are reminded of the counseling services available at Tufts University. The Situation Room also has a dedicated therapist available for group conversations and one-on-one meetings. Volunteers are encouraged to make use of these services and to make sure to take time off on a regular basis.