Devising aid programs on their laptops

Marketplace Staff Jan 18, 2010

Devising aid programs on their laptops

Marketplace Staff Jan 18, 2010


Tess Vigeland: Charities say they’ve been flooded with donations for Haitian rescue efforts. For most people, giving money is the only way to help. But some tech-savvy folks have found another way to give. Brett Neely has that story.

BRETT NEELY: Programmers and software developers filled the offices of Washington’s Sunlight Foundation this weekend. There’s pizza and soda everywhere. But this is no ordinary hack-a-thon. These programmers are here for Crisis Camp. It’s an ad hoc assembly of technology types eager to help out Haiti. Everyone has a laptop and is deep in concentration.

CLAY JOHNSON: I’ve never heard 137 people in one small space be so quiet.

Clay Johnson works at the Sunlight Foundation and is one of Crisis Camp’s organizers. They’re developing online tools to help Haitians and aid workers. One group is writing the world’s first Creole-English translation program. Others are creating a unified missing persons database and updating maps based on the latest satellite images.

Lynette Hammond works as an IT project manager at a local university.

LYNETTE HAMMOND: We’re the “we have, we want” team, and we’re working on creating a Craigslist-style classified to match people, NGOs in the field with donations of goods and things like that.

Other Crisis Camps sprung up across the country and in London this weekend. Clay Johnson says the tech community’s strong response is no surprise.

JOHNSON: There’s a myth that developers are people who sit in their underwear in their basements and play World of Warcraft. That is not the case. These are people who are socially responsible and engaged and want to help the world.

For some Crisis Campers, it’s personal.

Luc Castera was born and raised in Port-au-Prince and now works as a programmer in Washington. Crisis Camp is one way he can lend a hand to his family and friends still in Haiti.

LUC CASTERA: I’m helping the language team with translations, and I’m also helping the geolocation team identify places that people are mentioning on Twitter because sometimes they don’t have a way to know where that’s located.

Another Crisis Camp project tracks what governments and non-profits have done so far. Organizer Clay Johnson says the goal is to create more transparency and accountability so Haitians have the tools to challenge corruption.

JOHNSON: If technology is embraced by the NGO community in doing stuff down there, then that makes data easier to track, it makes it easier to figure out what activity is happening and what’s going where.

He adds the software developed here can also be used the next time disaster strikes — wherever that may be.

In Washington, I’m Brett Neely for Marketplace.

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