The Haiti earthquake killed at least 150,000 people. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians are without shelter. Few safe buildings survived the quake. So “tent cities” are springing up. Kurt Jean-Charles runs Solutions, a tech company in Port-au-Prince. Since the earthquake, he’s helped to connect aid providers to the tent camps via text messaging.
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service PRI and WGBH Boston. It will take at least 10 years to rebuild Haiti. That’s what Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, told an international conference in Montreal today. This month’s earthquake killed at least 150,000 people and the long term challenges are extraordinary. Of immediate concern, though, are the hundreds of thousands of Haitians without shelter. Few safe buildings survived the quake, so tent cities are springing up. Kurt Jean-Charles runs Solutions, a tech company in Port-au-Prince. Since the earthquake he’s helped to connect aid providers to the tent camps via text messaging. Kurt Jean-Charles, tell us how text messaging is helping the tent cities.
KURT JEAN-CHARLES: What we’re trying to do now, as much as possible, is connect different people. Trying to link the people in need in the camps with the people that are making the coordination to provide help and food and water. Also trying to connect people with their family abroad.
WERMAN: And are you focusing on this tech aspect of communication because there is no communication in Port-au-Prince right now? No mobile phone networks.
JEAN-CHARLES: We’ve spent a lot of days without mobile phone networks, but now the mobile operators are back. But the most important thing is how do you make sense of all the information that is available and how do you shorten this to make it available to people that have decisions to make and people that also have very urgent and vital needs.
WERMAN: So tell us how your text messaging app actually works and how it’s being used right now.
JEAN-CHARLES: First we started by making an evaluation of the camps and for each camp we’re trying to find someone that is responsible. This person is our logistical contact to be able to trace the urgent helps needed.
WERMAN: Tell me what this app that you’ve developed is providing that was not provided before.
JEAN-CHARLES: A few days ago everybody had it’s own list of shelters in an excel file and nobody could communicate efficiently with this kind of information. Now that we can have essential data base that everybody is using. We also have people that can validate the information that is available. We are sure that all the actors can coordinate their efforts. There’s also something that I very important for us and that we’re trying to do in this app. We’re trying to make sure that all the neighborhoods are involved and that they try to collect data on themselves and try to organize themselves. For each family, how many people are living in that family? What are the human resources available in this family? Is there, for example, a doctor, a nurse around? How many people are in need of medical help? So we’re trying to have the neighborhood to organize themselves, to gather data about themselves and about their environment so that in the future, in the next days, not only we can go through the first step of the crisis, but we can start also the rebuilding process with accurate information. Having everybody on board is the best way to go there.
WERMAN: I mean, tech-wise, I just wonder where this earthquake sends Haiti back to in terms of technology. What year has the earthquake rewound Haiti to tech-wise right now?
JEAN-CHARLES: I think there was something very positive about technology. In the first hours, the access to internet was still available. It was, I think it was vital for many reasons to convey critical information and also to make the connections with some families. We didn’t have phone lines. We couldn’t communicate. The internet was the only way that we could do so. I think that can be a very interesting indicator for us maybe to start or restart using technologies more efficiently.
WERMAN: That’s pretty extraordinary. What do you think made the internet in Port-au-Prince immune to the same destruction there that shut down the power system, the power grid?
JEAN-CHARLES: The first reason is that even before the earthquake we had many – - issues with electricity. Every business owner had to make sure that he can be energy independent. I think that was one reason. The other reason is also that the main points where the backbones and the – - are located, they weren’t hit as severely as other places.
WERMAN: Kurt Jean-Charles runs Solutions, a tech company in Port-au-Prince. He’s developed an app to help the tent cities communicate their needs to aid agencies. Kurt Jean-Charles, thanks very much for speaking with us.
JEAN-CHARLES: Okay, thank you, goodbye.
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