“If all You Have is a Hammer” - How Useful is Humanitarian Crowdsourcing?

Posted by admin on Oct 20, 2010

Editor’s NoteUrban Search and Rescue Team, with assistance from U.S. military personnel, coordinate plans before a search and rescue mission: In this article, guest contributor Paul Currion looks at the potential for crowdsourcing data during large-scale humanitarian emergencies, as part of our "Deconstructing Mobile" series. Paul is an aid worker who has been working on the use of ICTs in large-scale emergencies for the last 10 years.  He asks whether crowdsourcing adds significant value to responding to humanitarian emergencies, arguing that merely increasing the quantity of information in the wake of a large-scale emergency may be counterproductive. Instead, the humanitarian community needs clearly defined information that can help in making critical decisions in mounting their programmes in order to save lives and restore livelihoods. By taking a close look at the data collected via Ushahidi in the wake of the Haiti earthquake, he concludes that crowdsourced data from affected communities may not be useful for supporting the response to a large-scale disaster.

1. The Rise of Crowdsourcing in Emergencies

Ushahidi, the software platform for mapping incidents submitted by the crowd via SMS, email, Twitter or the web, has generated so many column inches of news coverage that the average person could be mistaken for thinking that it now plays a central role in coordinating crisis responses around the globe. At least this is what some articles say, such as Technology Review's profile of David Kobia, Director of Technology Development for Ushahidi.  For most people, both inside and outside the sector, who lack the expertise to dig any deeper, column inches translate into credibility. If everybody's talking about Ushahidi, it must be doing a great job – right?


Ushahidi is the result of three important trends:

  1. Increased availability and utility of spatial data;
  2. Rapid growth of communication infrastructure, particularly mobile telephony; and
  3. Convergence of networks based on that infrastructure on Internet access.

Given those trends, projects like Ushahidi may be inevitable rather than unexpected, but inevitability doesn't give us any indication of how effective these projects are. Big claims are made about the way in which crowdsourcing is changing the way in which business is done in other sectors, and now attention has turned to the humanitarian sector. John Della Volpe's short article in the Huffington Post is an example of such claims:

"If a handful of social entrepreneurs from Kenya could create an open-source "social mapping" platform that successfully tracks and sheds light on violence in Kenya, earthquake response in Chile and Haiti, and the oil spill in the Gulf -- what else can we use it for?"

The key word in that sentence is “successfully”. There isn’t any evidence that Ushahidi “successfully” carried out these functions in these situations; only that an instance of the Ushahidi platform was set up. This is an extremely low bar to clear to achieve “success”, like claiming that a new business was successful because it had set up a website.  There has lately been an unfounded belief that the transformative effects of the latest technology are positively inevitable and inevitably positive, simply by virtue of this technology’s existence.

2. What does Successful Crowdsourcing Look Like?

To be fair, it's hard to know what would constitute “success” for crowdsourcing in emergencies. In the case of Ushahidi, we could look at how many reports are posted on any given instance – but that record is disappointing, and the number of submissions for each Ushahidi instance is exceedingly small in comparison to the size of the affected population – including Haiti, where Ushahidi received the most public praise for its contribution.

In any case, the number of reports posted is not in itself a useful measure of impact, since those reports might consist of recycled UN situation reports and links to the Washington Post's “Your Earthquake Photos” feature.  What we need to know is whether the service had a significant positive impact in helping communities affected by disaster.  This is difficult to measure, even for experienced aid agencies whose work provides direct help.  Perhaps the best we can do is ask a simple question: if the system worked exactly as promised, what added value would it deliver?

As Patrick Meier, a doctoral student and Director of Crisis Mapping and Strategic Partnerships for Ushahidi has explained, crowdsourcing would never be the only tool in the humanitarian information toolbox. That, of course, is correct and there is no doubt that crowdsourcing is useful for some activities – but is humanitarian response one of those activities?

A key question to ask is whether technology can improve information flow in humanitarian response. The answer is that it absolutely can, and that's exactly what many people, including this author, have been working on for the last 10 years. However, it is a fallacy to think that if the quantity of information increases, the quality of information increases as well. This is pretty obviously false, and, in fact, the reverse might be true.

From an aid worker’s perspective, our bandwidth is extremely limited, both literally and metaphorically.  Those working in emergency response – official or unofficial, paid or unpaid, community-based or institution-based, governmental or non-governmental – don't need more information, they need better information. Specifically, they need clearly defined information which can help them to make critical decisions in mounting their programmes in order to save lives and restore livelihoods.

I wasn't involved with the Haiti response, which made me think that perhaps my doubts about Ushahidi were unfounded and that perhaps the data they had gathered could be useful. In the course of discussions on Patrick Meier's blog, I suggested that the best way for Ushahidi to show my position was wrong would be to present a use case to show how crowdsourced data could be used (as an example) by the Information Manager for the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Coordination Cluster, a position which I filled in Bangladesh and Georgia. Two months later, I decided to try that experiment for myself.

3. In Which I Look At The Data Most Carefully

The only crowdsourced data I have is the Ushahidi dataset for Haiti, but since Haiti is claimed as a success, that seemed like to be a good place to start. I started by downloading and reading through the dataset – the complete log of all reports posted in Ushahidi. It was a mix of two datastreams:

  • Material published on the web or received via email, such as UN sitreps, media reports, and blog updates, and
  • Messages sent in by the public via the 4636 SMS shortcode established during the emergency.

I was struck by two observations:

  • One of the claims made by the Ushahidi team is that its work should be considered an additional datastream for a id workers.  However, the first datastream is simply duplicating information that aid workers are already likely to receive.
  • The 4636 messages were a novel datastream, but also the outcome of specific conditions which may not hold in places other than Haiti.  The fact that there is a shortcode does not guarantee results, as can be seen in the virtually empty Pakistan Ushahidi deployment.

I considered that perhaps the 4636 messages could demonstrate some added value. They fell into three broad categories: the first was information about the developing situation, the second was people looking for information about family or friends missing after the earthquake, and the third and by far the largest, was general requests for help.

I tried to imagine that I had been handed this dataset on my deployment to Haiti. The first thing I would have to do is to read through it, clean it up, and transcribe it into a useful format rather than just a blank list. This itself would be a massive undertaking that can only be done by somebody on the ground who knows what a useful format would be. Unfortunately, speaking from personal experience, people on the ground simply don't have time for that, particularly if they are wrestling with other data such as NGO assessments or satellite images.

For the sake of argument, let's say that I somehow have the time to clean up the data. I now have a dataset of messages regarding the first three weeks of the response. 95% of those messages are for shelter, water and food. I could have told you that those would be the main needs even before I  arrived in position, so that doesn't add any substantive value. On top of that, the data is up to 3 weeks old: I'd have to check each individual report just to find out just whether those people are still in the place that they were when they originally texted, and whether their needs have been met.

Again for the sake of argument, let's say that I have a sufficient number of staff (as opposed to zero, which is the number of staff you usually have when you're an information manager in the field) and they've checked every one of those requests. Now what? There are around 3000 individual “incidents” in the database, but most of those contain little to no detail about the people sending them. How many are included in the request, how many women, children and old people are there, what are their specific medical needs, exactly where they are located now – this is the vital information that aid agencies need to do their work, and it simply isn't there.

Once again for the sake of argument, let's say that all of those reports did contain that information – could I do something with it? If approximately 1.5 million people were affected by the disaster, those 3000 reports represent such a tiny fraction of the need that they can't realistically be used as a basis for programming response activities. One of the reasons we need aid agencies is economies of scale: procuring food for large populations is better done by taking the population as a whole. Individual cases, while important for the media, are almost useless as the basis for making response decisions after a large-scale disaster.

There is also this very basic technical question: once we have this crowdsourced data, what do we do with? In the case of Ushahidi, it was put on a Google Maps mash-up – but this is largely pointless for two reasons. First, there's a simple question of connectivity. Most aid workers and nearly all the population won't have reliable access to the Internet, and where they do, won't have time to browse through Google Maps. (It's worth noting that this problem is becoming less important as Internet connectivity, including the mobile web, improves globally – but also that the places and people prone to disasters tend to be the last to benefit from that connectivity.)

Second, from a functional perspective, the interface is rudimentary at best. The visual appeal of Ushahidi is similar to that of Powerpoint, casting an illusion of simplicity over what is, in fact, a complex situation. If I have 3000 text messages saying "I need food and water and shelter”, what added value is there from having those messages represented as a large circle on a map?  The humanitarian community often lacks the capacity to analyse spatial data, but this map has almost no analytical capacity. The clustering of reports (where larger bubbles correspond to the places that most text messages refer to) may be a proxy for locations with the worst impact; but a pretty weak proxy derived from a self-selecting sample.

In the end, I was reduced to bouncing around the Ushahidi map, zooming in and out on individual reports – not something I would have time to do if I was actually in the field. Harsh as it sounds, my conclusion was that the data that crowdsourcing of this type is capable of collecting in a large-scale disaster response is operationally useless. The reason for this has nothing to do with Ushahidi, or the way that the system was implemented, but with the very nature of crowdsourcing itself.

4. Crowdsourcing Response or Digital Voluntourism?

One of the key definitions of “crowdsourcing” was provided by Jeff Howe in a Wired article that originally popularised the term: taking “a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.” In the case of Haiti, part of the reason why people mistakenly thought crowdsourcing was successful, was because there were two different “crowds” being talked about.

The first was the global group of volunteers who came together to process the data that Ushahidi presented on its map. By all accounts, this was definitely a successful example of crowdsourcing as per Howe's definition. We can all agree that this group put a lot of effort into their work. However, the end result wasn’t especially useful. Furthermore, most of those volunteers won't show up for the next response – and in fact they didn't for Pakistan.

The media coverage of Ushahidi focuses mainly on this first crowd – the group of volunteers working remotely.  Yet, the second crowd is much more important: the affected community. Reading through the Ushahidi data was heartbreaking, indeed.  But we already knew that people needed food, water, shelter, medical aid – plus a lot more things that they wouldn't have been thinking of immediately as they stood in the ruins of their homes. In the Ushahidi model, this is the crowd that provides the actual data, the added value, but the question is whether crowdsourced data from affected communities could be useful from an operational perspective of organising the response to a large-scale disaster.

The data that this crowd can provide is unreliable for operational purposes for three reasons. First, you can't know how many people will contribute their information, a self-selection bias that will skew an operational response. Second, the information that they do provide must be checked – not because affected populations may be lying, but because people in the immediate aftermath of a large-scale disaster do not necessarily know all that they specifically need or may not provide complete information. Third, the data is by nature extremely transitory, out-of-date as soon as it's posted on the map.

Taken together, these three mean that aid agencies are going to have to carry out exactly the same needs assessments that they would have anyway – in which case, what use was that information in the first place?

5. Is Crowdsourcing Raising Expectations That Cannot be Met?

Many of the critiques that the crowdsourcing crowd defend against are questions about how to verify the accuracy of crowdsourced information, but I don't think that's the real problem. It's the nature of an emergency that all information is provisional.  The real question is whether it's useful.

So to some extent those questions are a distraction from the real problems: how to engage with affected communities to help them respond to emergencies more effectively, and how to coordinate aid agencies to ensure and effective response. On the face of it, crowdsourcing looks like it can help to address those problems.  In fact, the opposite may be true.

Disaster response on the scale of the Haiti earthquake or the Pakistan floods is not simply a question of aggregating individual experiences. Anecdotes about children being pulled from rubble by Search and Rescue teams are heart-warming and may help raise money for aid agencies but such stories are relatively incidental when the humanitarian need is clean water for 1 million people living in that rubble. Crowdsourced information – that is, information voluntarily submitted in an open call to the public – will not ever provide the sort of detail that aid agencies need to procure and supply essential services to entire populations.

That doesn't mean that crowdsourcing is useless: based on the evidence from Haiti, Ushahidi did contribute to Search and Rescue (SAR). The reason for that is because SAR requires the receipt of a specific request for a specific service at a specific location to be delivered by a specific provider – the opposite of crowdsourcing. SAR is far from being a core component of most humanitarian responses, and benefits from a chain of command that makes responding much simpler. Since that same chain of command does not exist in the wider humanitarian community, ensuring any response to an individual 4636 message is almost impossible.

This in turn raises questions of accountability – is it wholly responsible to set up a shortcode system if there is no response capability behind it, or are we just raising the expectations of desperate people?

6. Could Crowdsourcing Add Value to Humanitarian Efforts?

Perhaps it could. However, the problem is that nobody who is promoting crowdsourcing currently has presented convincing arguments for that added value. To the extent that it's a crowdsourcing tool, Ushahidi is not useful; to the extent that it's useful, Ushahidi is not a crowdsourcing tool.

To their credit, this hasn't gone unnoticed by at least some of the Ushahidi team, and there seems to be something of a retreat from crowdsourcing, described in this post by one of the developers, Chris Blow:

One way to solve this: forget about crowdsourcing. Unless you want to do a huge outreach campaign, design your system to be used by just a few people. Start with the assumption that you are not going to get a single report from anyone who is not on your payroll. You can do a lot with just a few dedicated reporters who are pushing reports into the system, curating and aggregating sources."

At least one of the Ushahidi team members now talks about “bounded crowdsourcing” which is a nonsensical concept. By definition, if you select the group doing the reporting, they're not a crowd in the sense that Howe explained in his article. This may be an area where Ushahidi would be useful, since a selected (and presumably trained) group of reporters could deliver the sort of structured data with more consistent coverage that is actually useful – the opposite of what we saw in Haiti. Such an approach, however, is not crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing can be useful on the supply side: for example, one of the things that the humanitarian community does need is increased capacity to process data. One of the success stories in Haiti was the work of the OpenStreetMap (OSM) project, where spatial data derived from existing maps and satellite images was processed remotely to build up a far better digital map of Haiti than existed previously. However, this processing was carried out by the already existing OSM community rather than by the large and undefined crowd that Jeff Howe described.

Nevertheless this is something that the humanitarian community should explore, especially for data that has a long-term benefit for affected countries (such as core spatial data). To have available a recognised group of data processors who can do the legwork that is essential but time-consuming would be a real asset to the community – but there we've moved away from the crowd again.

7. A Small Conclusion

My critique of crowdsourcing – shared by other people working at the interface of humanitarian response and technology – is not that it is disruptive to business as usual. My critique is that it doesn't work – not just that it doesn't work given the constraints of the operational environment (which Ushahidi's limited impact in past deployments shows to be largely true), but that even if the concept worked perfectly, it still wouldn't offer sufficient value to warrant investing in.

Unfortunately, because Ushahidi rests its case almost entirely on the crowdsourcing concept, this article may be interpreted as an attack on Ushahidi and the people working on it. However, all of the questions I've raised here are not directed solely at Ushahidi (although I hope that there will be more debate about some of the points raised) but hopefully will become part of a wider and more informed debate about social media in general within the humanitarian community.

Resources are always scarce in the humanitarian sector, and the question of which technology to invest in is a critical one. We need more informed voices discussing these issues, based on concrete use cases because that's the only way we can test the claims that are made about technology.  For while the tools that we now have at our disposal are important, we have a responsibility to use them for the right tasks.

Image credit: Urban Search and Rescue Team, with assistance from U.S. military personnel, coordinate plans before a search and rescue mission in order to find survivors in Port-au-Prince. U.S. Navy Photo.

“If all You Have is a Hammer” - How Useful is Humanitarian Crowdsourcing? data sheet 21335 Views
Countries: Haiti

Yes to Family Tracing



I wrote about family tracing in my review of how technology was used during Katrina (http://www.humanitarian.info/ict-and-katrina/), but I have been largely disappointed in developments since then. It worries me that people seem to think that I am dismissing crowdsourcing completely (and hence Ushahidi, 4636, and all similar projects), when I was very clear in my article that I believe that crowdsourcing *can* usefully support some activities (and cited Search and Rescue as one possible example in the case of Haiti, and perhaps we can add family tracing to that).

I am merely questioning whether large-scale humanitarian response is one of those activities.

Good to see a real debate on this

Thank you for this post.

I ran IOM's communications and outreach in Haiti after the earthquake, and it was clear that the claims about Ushahidi being made in New York did not tally with what I saw on the ground.

I do believe that these technologies are very promising, and that as mobile continues its inexorable advance they will become increasingly useful. I am very grateful that smart people are devoting so much time to exploring ways of making it work.

I also believe that the humanitarian mobile community is finally asking itself the right questions.

But it seemed that this narrative first had to follow the irritating old pattern of exaggerated claims, followed by those claims being shot down, followed by - at last - a rationale discussion of what worked and what didn't.

When I first arrived back in NYC, suggestions that there were shortfalls in what had been done were viewed somewhat as pooping the party.

The weird thing is, during discussions in the CDAC community in Haiti, even as this whole thing was happening, everyone knew the problems with translating data into useful information for practitioners and policy makers. There were no illusions.

But once it got to NYC, the land of the trendy tech gurus, that reality was ignored, glossed over. Instead, the narrative was promoted that the magic hand of crowdsourcing would somehow sort everything out, with each crisis creating its own spontaneous wikipedia of useful actionable information.

But crises - being crises - appear to need a more directed focused approach.

Anyway, here's to everyone trying to make this work.

And here's to people with the vision to translate the language of tech into the language of policy. Even with the best will in the world, it's harder than people may think.

Missing persons

Paul, you are overlooking one situation where crowdsourcing can be very effective, and that is the case of missing persons - family members searching for love ones who are unaccounted for in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe.

The use and demand for web-based tools to collect information from worried family members, and responses from persons sought, is especially high when there is a diaspora in countries that have access to the internet, such as was the case during the Kosovo conflict.

I don't know if you recall during Hurricane Katrina, there were a number of competing services to reunite family members, including one by Amcross and another one put up in a matter of hours by Microsoft. No, its not Ushahidi, but yes it is crowdsourcing, and yes it was useful.

Since the Kosovo conflict, the ICRC has been experimenting and deploying missing persons databases every time it can be useful... sometimes its used, sometimes less, but at least its there.

Whats interesting with the ICRC's Familylinks model, is when they offer the mixed approach: teams on the ground with internet-enabled laptops for those who have no means to register, with crowdsourced information from the seekers who are out of the disaster area. I think this success comes from a careful integration of the crowdsourcing elements into a broader program or campaign.

Thats not to say that crowdsourcing is not without its problems. If an Ushahidi site is just thrown up, its not likely that much will come out of it, unless its adopted by an organisation on the ground (meaning prior preparation and planning) and integrated into a campaign so that people know its there and it can become viral. But it does have its use cases.

This stufff predates the web actually. During WW II there were spontaneous missing persons bulletin boards in all cities across Europe, and people would travel from city to city to look at those boards and search for missing family memers. Thats how Simon Wiesenthal found his wife.

Imagine if they had a tool like Ushahidi in those days... a central registry. That would have been really great.



Thomas: Thanks for sharing


Thanks for sharing your experiences. I don't doubt your word, but are you sure you were a member of the Territorial Service for 20 years? It was the women's branch of the British Army during World War II and was disbanded in 1949, so this would make you a) female and b) about 100 years old. Not that I'm complaining - personally I welcome the increasing number of transgender centenarians such as yourself using the web.

Ushahidi is useful


Yes, I think Ushahidi could be useful for visualising that sort of survey data, although as the Ushahidi team point out, the platform is only 10% - you'd need to make sure that you have the other 90% in place to make it a success. Bear in mind that it would provide you with very limited analytical capacity - however for many organisations that will probably be enough for their needs.


Over half of the Ushahidi team currently lives in Africa, most of them are developers. I'll just leave it at that.



And of these 10 that are actually African, how many, besides Ory live there?  How many live in the US, developing within a bubble for technology demands that they have to theorize about?  This is the issue that Paul gets it in that splashing "made in Africa" all over Ushahidi, it's an attempt to give it some kind of street cred.  Erik's line of promotion on the product is quite disingenuous in this regard to say the least, which is probably why it's been heavy on form/marketing and extremely light on function/usefulness.

The Wonzomai "deployment" in Ivory Coast is going to be more of the same and is incredibly redundant given that there is already a UN peacekeeping force as well as election monitoring force in the country that has more on the ground [actual] deployment through every decent-sized town than any SMS social system can hope to achieve given the weak-link that social network, croudsourced systems are.  And what happens if there is a crisis and the mobile networks are shut down?  All those wobbly antennas on the UN vehicles that people love to malign are going to be the only broadcast system that will work, not to mention the fact that no one on a SAT connection for their internet is going to be able to view the precious maps that Paul shows to be worthless even when viewable.

And I still stand by the issue of funding.  Ushahidi is not funded by any African money.  It is funded by NGO's (who have a well-known broken aid model towards Africa) that are from the US and EU, with what appears to be most of the money coming from the US.  This foundation makes it flawed from birth no matter whose DNA goes in to the mix of making it...

Interesting article

Hi Paul

Thanks for an interesting analysis, I was very curious to know more but it's so hard to find accurate views about things like Ushahidi. I used to work in usability related work and it sounds like the creators of the platform didn't really know enough about the work of disaster personnel, a very common problem with software development.


I was wondering if the platform could be use for gathering fixed, survey type information, for example, getting some idea of how many people there are with some kind of disability in an area. I'm working in Tanzania and there are many unknowns that are likely to remain unknown for the forseeable but a way of gathering this kind of information might supply even rough data, which could be very useful.


Any thoughts?



Not African?


Not to be nitpicky but 10 out of the 12 paid staff (83%) at Ushahidi were born in Africa and 100% of the staff has at least lived there at one point or another. How does that make Ushahidi non-African?


What a relief to hear people talking sense about all this excitement around new technologies. I applaud Mr Currion for this news article!

I also have experience in helping the needy at dire times, having served in the Territorial Service (TS) for 20 years. We were often the first line of defense against mother-nature here in Britain, and I served my country many times by helping villages during floods, storms and fires. My family has a distinguished history in this regard. My father and grandfather served in the wars, and my mother was a member of the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service. Whilst my children have pursued successful careers of their own in law and medicine, other members of their generation have continued this proud tradition. My nephew, also named Thomas, has been working in Haiti as part of an NGO organisation to help with communication for hospitals. It was Thomas who directed me to this web-site when I asked him about the nature of his work. You see, I was a communications officer in the TS, so these discussions are very close to my heart.

This news article inspired me to conduct an investigation of my own - who am I to sit here in retirement when can be contributing! Like many people today, both young and old, my nephew Thomas undertakes much correspondence by email. I have been increasingly concerned about his use of email rather than more tested means of communication, although I do use it myself occasionally. I use the Hotmail and he uses a different one, but to be frank I only use emailing on rare occasions to correspond with family. As a communication's expert, I felt it my duty to analyse how people are using email for natural disasters. I asked Thomas to send me some examples of emails that people sent within Haiti. To my surprise, he sent me more than 2,000 messages almost immediately. I am not sure how he got so many so quickly, but I am sure the readers of this magazine already know about these things. Following Mr Currion's lead, I carefully read many of these. There were some in French, but I remembered enough from grammar school to understand them, par bonheur! They fell in three distinct categories. First, there seemed to be reports about hospitals requiring supplies. These were mostly in French and were very harrowing to read. Secondly, there seemed to reports originating from Haitians themselves, often requesting food and water. I presume someone was collecting reports for food and water to respond to them, but it certainly was not Thomas. Third, there were instructions between the people Thomas was working with about various activities. These were mostly with reference to places that I am not familiar with or know the condition of, so it is difficult for me to judge how useful or important they might be. Overall, I came to the conclusion that this is simply too much information. If I were to land in Haiti tomorrow armed only with these emails, I fear that I would not be very much help. It would be much more useful if they were already presented in a way that someone outside the area could understand. I would suggest that email is not appropriate for communication in natural disasters and we might want to return to something more tested.

I share Mr Currion's concern in extracting actionable intelligence from so much information. How can we turn this all of this into an actionable report? It would take an awful lot of work to turn all these email communications of Thomas into something useful, and I would know as I have managed people doing this often. Only those on the ground can truly define what an actionable report looks like, just as Mr Currion says, so who could possibly create these reports? It seems we are failing to learn from the past. During the second world war we here in Great Britain had rooms full of people listening to radio communications between enemy communication personnel. I was a child at the time, so how do I know this? My mother was one of these very people! She recorded what she heard, along with hundreds of other ladies, and added this information to forms which were then translated and processed according to priority by other people, all within Great Britain. Many of these reports would have made it back to people on the front lines in Europe and the Atlantic. By using radio-communication technology this whole process may well have taken as little one hour. Astounding for the times! I believe that if we want to engage people outside of the region in crisis, we should be looking at replicating this successful programme before jumping into this ‘crowd-sourcing' thing.

I feel the same way about many other new technologies. I do not use a mobile phone but I understand SMS. If a hundred thousand people sent me messages, however short they may be, I would not know what to do with them. I have not yet used a Facebook or Twitter, but I can tell you this for certain: they are not useful in a time of crisis, and they exclude those of us with the most experience. My long experience and knowledge about communication matters can be of service to people still working to help those in need and I am more than willing to offer my opinion and incite, but if people are using these new technologies that I do not understand, then I cannot contribute to these decisions.

We should also avoid talking directly to the needy people who are affected by the disaster, as in my experience they are often hopelessly hysterical, and understandably so, of course. If they do not even speak the same language as us, I do not see how we could make any sense of what they say. Rather than speaking to them directly or from some other place by phone, we should continue with the proven method whereby we establish a secure compound adjacent to these people and make decisions there. There is no fancy mobile phone service I am aware of that allows me to report emergencies here in Great Britain, so I don't see why one is needed in Haiti. Our priority is, and always should be, to help the people in need by helping the first responders.

Thomas (Tommy) Butler
27th of October 2010

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