Sabina Carleson recently joined Ushahidi’s Jaroslav Valuch in Port-au-Prince to support the transition of Ushahidi-Haiti to Haitian hands. Sabina is a senior at Tufts University majoring in Community Health. She has worked in Southern Sudan and three years ago co-founded RESPE, a community-led research and development project in rural northern Haiti under the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL).
I landed on the tarmac in Port au Prince a week ago today. It is not my first time in Haiti: I founded a community health initiative in northern Haiti 3 years ago, where I learned basic creole and learned to respect the resilience of Haitian civil society. I had been called on the ground to lend some support to my colleague Jaroslav Valuch, who has been building an impressive network of contacts in the humanitarian sector.
I landed in Port au Prince to compliment what Jaro is building in the humanitarian community with connections, partnerships, and data from the local Haitian communities, and to diversify the methods we use to collect local information. In just under a week, I have begun connecting with a diverse set of Haitian actors who can see the current value and long-term potential of Ushahidi, from local radio stations to community leaders – and I will expand upon the most promising partnership in my first blog post from Port au Prince.
“The questions need to be asked by the people who have lived the disaster.” Agathe Etienne
In the middle of a long, warm morning in an IDP camp on an old golf course in Petionville, Agathe Etienne and I stood having a long, heated conversation in Creole as people walked by with wheelbarrows of assorted distribution items. If anyone knows the true meaning of this quote I referenced above, it is Agathe: during the first days after the earthquake, frustrated at the lack of attention her community was getting, she mobilized members of her community to conduct a cross between a census and needs assessment, and walked it straight to the humanitarian organizations operating in her area.
Agathe called her initiative Quartier par Quarter, “block by block”, and the project replicated itself across Carrefour Feuilles, Fontamara and Tabarre. In Fontamara, the project was taken up by a local Azek, a bit like a mayor, and no fewer than 26,000 people were surveyed. Hundreds of miles away in Atlanta, Georgia, the Haitian Alliance, a Diaspora development group, discovered the project and were inspired to support it.
When Jean-Claude Bourget of the Haitian Alliance, and Shadrock Roberts of the University of Georgia Athens, discovered Ushahidi, they reached out to our team to ask how we could display this dynamic community-generated data that was coming from the ground.
Instantly, the potential was clear: if Ushahidi is a platform for broadcasting and aggregating the thoughts and priorities of Haitians, here was a true grassroots initiative to begin to collect those thoughts. And if Quartier par Quartier is an initiative to collect the thoughts and priorities of people on the ground and broadcast them to the humanitarian community, here was a platform built that could be instrumental for that purpose.
I arrived in Port au Prince almost two weeks ago, and just a day later found myself on the back of a pick-up truck with the lead volunteers for QpQ. All of them are the same age as the Ushahidi crew back in the Situation Room in Boston: university students, the greatest difference being their universities had all collapsed. Over the noise of traffic, MINUSTAH fuel trucks, and occasional helicopters I explained Ushahidi in Creole. “Oh, ou se pwoje Open Source?” one asked back. “You’re an Open Source project?” I nodded, and he said, “Cool.” No joke.
In a half an hour I had my computer open, and showed them the front and back ends of the Ushahidi site, OpenStreetMap and Hypercube. Immediately, the QpQ team simply got it.
In the eyes of the QpQ team, local use of Ushahidi could become an exercise in local crowdsourcing: they and other small initiatives are collecting information about their own communities, capacities, priorities, and problems, but understood they had no standard way to collect and display the data. Here is an opportunity to sort, streamline, and standardize this flow of information, and give them a common language that is actionable.
In looking at the categories on Ushahidi, the QpQ leaders immediately saw a broader potential in the data they were gathering: being able to map problems in the community like broken bridges or highlighting problems like manipulation of aid. If a new category was put on the table, these intelligent university students spent 10 minutes discussing the implications in their communities. In the final minutes of our 4th conversation, someone got up and said, “We are the eyes and ears of our communities. If we collect this information and make it public, it is up to the organizations, local and international, to act”.
And, the international community is willing and able to act. I spent the morning in a white tent in the UN Logisitcs Base by the Port au Prince airport, sitting down to present, discuss, and coordinate assessments with OCHA’s assessment working group. Impressive and professional teams are currently deploying large surveys with contractors and electronic handheld PDAs, but as important as they are, as Agathe said, these surveys are not being designed by people who lived the disaster. I was pleasantly surprised when I realized how interested the international community is in the kind of community-generated conversations that initiatives like QpQ and Ushahidi can provide. It is the human layer underneath the statistics, excel spreadsheets, and GPS coordinates.
This human layer is resilient and dynamic. As I said goodnight and shook hands with 8 of my Haitian peers, including a computer science student and coder named Douglas who is excited about building a PhP platform to streamline data flow, I understood the capacity on the ground in a way that hadn’t been possible before.
The Ushahidi team in Boston have been discussing how to put this tool into the hands of the Haitian community, and now I have seen with my own eyes how those capable, confident, and ready those hands are – and how the hands of the international community are also open to receive it.