“Telecommunications isn’t a luxury in emergency response. It’s core to the mission,” says Paul Margie (not pictured), US representative for the group Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF). TSF volunteers are currently on the ground in Haiti, trying to set up internet and phone access for humanitarian workers, and for locals. It underscores how critical high-tech has become in the wake of disasters. The World’s technology correspondent Clark Boyd speaks with anchor Jeb Sharp.
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JEB SHARP: Delivering aid to Haiti remains a top priority for President Obama. For the second day in a row Mr. Obama spoke about Haiti at the White House. He assured Haitians that quote, “you will not be forsaken.” And he noted that communications in their country are just starting to come back online. The World’s technology correspondent Clark Boyd is here. He’s been looking into just how important communications are for the relief effort in Haiti.
CLARK BOYD: I think it’s fair to say that just like you or I are reliant on e-mail and access to the internet and access to reliable phone service. You can imagine aid agencies are now built around these tools. And so increasingly over the years it’s become immensely important. And I talked today with the US representative of the group Telecommunications without Borders. His name is Paul Margie. And I think he put it best.
PAUL MARGIE: Telecom is not a luxury in emergency response. It’s core to the mission.
SHARP: So what does his group actually do?
BOYD: Well they have three bases around the world. And when a disaster happens somewhere they send teams of three or six people in and their mission is basically two-fold. The first thing they do is they work with aid agencies to get their communications up and running. Get them internet access. Get them phone access so that they can call each other; make sure that the aid is going where they want it to go. And then secondly what they do is set up call centers for the locals.
SHARP: You do get this picture not only of people not communicating with each other in a logistical sense but also people just desperate to hear from relatives inside and out.
BOYD: It’s amazing. And in fact that was the reason that this group was founded. It was founded by two relief workers and the question that they were asked over and over – even before can I have some food? Can I have some water? – is can I make a phone call? And this is Paul Margie talking a little bit about that.
MARGIE: People want their families to know they’re alive. They want them to know who’s not. They want to try to get resources from people that they know. And they want to try to reconnect with their families and they’re often spread in different places and unable to get to each other.
SHARP: Telecommunications Without Borders is one group. Are there other tech groups on the ground trying to get there?
BOYD: There are. In fact The World Food Program has a dedicated telecommunications group as part of their logistics staff that goes in in a very similar fashion and tries to set up emergency internet access and phone service for people there on the ground. I mean I think as we’ve heard in the last eight minutes or so of the show though this is a real chicken and egg situation. If the port isn’t open, if they’re having trouble getting stuff into the airport, there’s nothing to move around. But everybody that I talked to today talked about being able to talk to one another as being key.
SHARP: Can folks outside Haiti do anything to kind of help the bottlenecking situation or the glut or whatever?
BOYD: Yeah one of the more interesting projects that was set up just in the hours after the earthquake happened is – by a group called Ushahidi. Now Ushahidi means witness or testimony is Swahili. And it’s really a kind of a mapping platform that allows people to send in information about what they’re witnessing in the ground there in Haiti via text message or via an e-mail and likewise people from outside of Haiti can send in messages saying I’m looking for somebody in such and such a location. What the program then does is then map that so that anyone can go on the website and see where help might be needed or where missing persons might be.
SHARP: You’ve described several different ventures – all of which sound really good. It’s hard to know whether they are just a drop in the bucket and I wonder if you can give us a sense of is this going badly in terms of communication or is this just par for the course for something like this?
BOYD: Well in the coverage that I’ve done in the past of the use of this kind of technology following disasters like this, it is par for the course. I mean you have to look at the situation that Haiti was in to begin with. I mean there was cell phone service there. But you know it was not the best in the world we’d say. There really wasn’t great internet access, especially outside of Port-au-Prince. So I think what you’re seeing is par for the course and in the wake of a disaster of this magnitude. I think it’s going to take the tech people a while to catch up with it.
SHARP: The World’s technology correspondent Clark Boyd. Clark thanks a lot.
BOYD: You’re welcome.
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