Our friend Thom is a software guy. (My wife is too. I’m a recovering software guy – first a programmer, then a tech writer. That gives me some facility in communication with them. This is about the time she will thwack me. But I digress.) He’s also a family man, a man of faith, and civic-minded: he, like many of us, was struck by the tremendous humanitarian crisis currently in progress in Haiti. That’s why he’ll be at the Crisis Camp in Boston today.
When disasters strike like the one that is currently beating down Haiti, I often catch wind of comments from civic-minded techies about how the tremendous power of technology should be used to help address it. Naturally, however, when I hear something like, “we’re getting together to write code this Saturday so we can help relieve the disaster,” my first thought is: no, they need stuff like food and shelter and medicine, not iPhone apps to play Scrabble or something.
This is, of course, a sarcastic reply to an earnest feeling about the subject. My first thought was – what can technology do in these situations? And then, how many people own a computer and have a net connection, even if there was something to be done?
But this is 2010, not 1990. There’s even a significant difference between 2010 and, say, 2005, when Katrina hit New Orleans. The answer to the technology question is, a lot; to the computer question, a lot – because that computer looks like a cell phone.
What’s different? Twitter is different. Facebook is different. Text messaging. Blogging. The problem isn’t that technology can’t help: it clearly can, since, for example, people trapped in a collapsed building now have the possibility of connection to the outside world – the whole world, in fact. The problem is sifting the data, helping the signal-to-noise ratio, putting the right resources in the right place. What’s more, this crisis, and the involvement of these geeks without borders in the relief of it, might offer a level of accountability that has been absent in many preceding ones.
Haiti is a broken country. Some might characterize it thus for almost all of its two centuries of existence. Right now, there are a large number of very intelligent folks with world-spanning technology at their disposal paying very close attention to what’s happening, what’s needed, and where resources and money are going. Are people in Haiti going to try and take advantage of this crisis to line their pockets? To think otherwise is to be incredibly naive. But it might be harder for them to avoid getting caught in the act.
There’s an ongoing Twitter feed. (Disclaimer: I don’t use twitter, so I hope this is correct.) There are a bunch of projects listed at the Crisis Commons website. Thom’s either helping direct, or directing, the Camp today (01/23/2010).
Americans, despite being held in low esteem elsewhere in the world, are still the most generous and big-hearted people anywhere. This is another example of it. I’m impressed with the idea of this effort. I wish Thom, and the rest of them, well.