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Grassroots Relief

by Kristen Saloomey

University students have always been known for their activism, but I just met a group at Columbia University's School of Public Administration (SIPA) who are using technology to take it to a new level.

They are volunteers who have been holed up in the basement of the school's library, despite their exams, ever since an earthquake struck Chile.

They work in shifts from a tiny room without windows, amid half-eaten snacks and potato-chip wrappers, but they are able to have a direct impact on how aid is delivered to the people in Chile - thanks to an amazing new tool available right on their laptops.

They are using an open source - meaning anyone can use it - software program called Ushahidi. Ushahidi allows them to take information provided by text messages, email, and twitter and create a "crisis map" of where help is needed.

It gives people on the ground the ability to communicate directly with aid organisations, who are in turn using Ushahidi to co-ordinate their relief efforts. The concept is known as "crowd sourcing".

 "It's an incredible tool," Jaclyn Carlsen, a student organiser, told me. "Our whole goal is to match resources with needs and we do this almost in real time."

Kenyan roots

Ushahidi means testimony in Swahili. It was developed in Kenya to track the violence that broke out after that country's 2007 elections.

It has many applications - Al Jazeera used it to help track military activity in the War on Gaza last year - but perhaps its most successful application was in Haiti.  

There, it is credited for saving people buried alive under the rubble, who were able to text their location to Ushahidi. The Red Cross is just one of the organisations who used the website to direct aid.

 Erik Hersman is one of the program's original developers. He credits Ushahidi with changing the "top-down" approach of relief work.

 "We are seeing that digital tools not only can play a useful part, but have to play a part.  It means that the humanitarian response of the past has to start incorporating some of the new methodologies and new tools in order to be effective," he told Al Jazeera.  

"If Haiti, being the biggest example, shows us anything, it's that crowd sourcing of crisis information is possible and there's value in giving information from the ground up instead of just from the top down."

  Speed is priority

One challenge with this technology is verifying reports as they come in. The students say they attempt to cross-check their sources, but the priority is getting the information out quickly.

 When they make a post, they check a box indicating how accurate it is, ranging from "verified" for information coming from the government, to "I don't know," for information coming from an unknown source.

 The project was taken on by the SIPA's New Media Task Force. They had just heard a lecture from Patrick Meier, who directed Ushahidi's Haiti response from Tufts University when the earthquake struck Chile.

 "Within 48 hours of the first earthquake we had 60 volunteers trained," Carlsen said.

 Now, they are training more student volunteers to keep up with the demand - another challenge. But those already involved are clearly committed and excited by the possibilities.  

"It gives poor people who don't have a voice, a voice," said Stephanie Ruiz, as she used Google maps to find the co-ordinates for a collapsed roadway.

 "All they need is a mobile phone. I thought that was very powerful and I was very interested in being a part of that."

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