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Focusing on Haiti

MIT community lends mind and hand to the rebuilding.
April 20, 2010

As Haiti struggles to recover from January’s earthquake, members of the MIT community are pitching in to help the devastated country.

Much to do A street scene in Haiti reveals the damage wrought by January’s earthquake.

Media Lab grad students Greg Elliott and Aaron Zinman have been developing Konbit, a free interactive communication platform that indexes the skills of people in crisis-affected communities so that organizations like the American Red Cross and Partners in Health can quickly find and employ them. The prototype of Konbit, whose name is a Creole term for the process of working together for the community, launched in March. Haitians will be able to use phone, text, or Web services to report areas of expertise not advertised or tracked by sites like Craigslist, such as language or construction skills.

Among the system’s components are servers in Cambridge, custom phone hardware for Haiti, and software that will help volunteer Haitians translate voice, text, and Web messages from Creole into English and other languages. The voice component is crucial, because only about 60 percent of the Haitian population is literate. In addition to making reconstruction more efficient, Konbit aims to ensure that the rebuilding effort puts Haitians to work (the unemployment rate was 70 percent before the earthquake) and gives them training and experience that could be valuable once the relief teams have left.

Konbit got its start in a four-day Independent Activities Period workshop sponsored by the Media Lab and the Center for Future Civic Media. Dale Joachim, a Media Lab visiting scientist who helped run that workshop, is now teaching New Media Projects for Haiti with Barry Vercoe, a Media Lab professor of media arts and sciences. The 30 or so undergrad and grad students taking the class are exploring how communications technology can help the rebuilding. The class planned to travel to Haiti in April to field-test and document its solutions to selected problems.

Meanwhile, students in a Sloan class called Applications of System Dynamics: Global Challenges, taught by senior lecturer Anjali Sastry ‘86, PhD ‘95, are analyzing data to assess the state of health, food, shelter, and water in Haiti. Their results will help Marc Zissman ‘85, SM ‘86, PhD ‘90, assistant head of the Communications and Information Technology Division at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, who is working with the U.S. military’s joint task force in Haiti to coördinate a group that is surveying 288 displacement camps and neighborhoods to determine the changing needs of the humanitarian effort.

Each week, the students have been processing up-to-the-minute data sent to them by the surveying group and adding what data they can from other sources. They plan to develop an online portal to display the results as they are updated, allowing decision makers to keep abreast of Haiti’s needs.

MIT is likely to play an even larger role in future reconstruction efforts. At a March retreat of the MIT/Haiti Response Advisory Group led by Steve Lerman ‘72, SM ‘73, PhD ‘75, vice chancellor and dean for graduate education, nearly two dozen faculty, staff, and students identified four areas in which MIT-led projects could be most effective: housing, sustainable development, education, and information coördination.

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