Archive for Disaster

GlobalGiving Founder on Haiti: ‘When You’re Poor, Everything Becomes Harder to Recover From’

As the incredible depth of devastation in Haiti became apparent yesterday, the response online grew rapidly. Haiti and various related topics trended all day on Twitter,blogs and websites were filled with links to nonprofits working in Haiti, and ubiquitous calls for cell phone text-to-give campaigns flooded the RSS streams. Like others, I turned to an online-based organization whose work I know and whose promise to get aid to those in need quickly – and effectively – I trusted.

GlobalGiving has been a marketplace for charitable projects since 1997 and has a history of supporting programs on health, poverty, agriculture and the environment in Haiti – and the site swung into action yesterday, working with key on-the-ground partners to rush medical supplies and emergency aid to the stricken nation. As the GlobalGiving team raced to direct resources to Haiti, I spoke briefly with Mari Kuraishi, the co-founder and president.

What’s GlobalGiving’s perspective on what Haiti faces during these terrible days?

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and in 2009 ranked 149th out of 182 countries according to the UN’s human development report. That’s to say that one in five Haitian children is underweight for their age and GDP per capita is $1,155—2.5% of US GDP per capita ($45,592). This is a country that is least able to recover from a natural disaster like a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. On the one hand that seems obvious. When you’re poor, everything becomes harder to recover from, because you just don’t have any slack in the system.

What do you think philanthropy’s role will be?

We don’t know the scale of the losses yet in Haiti. While it’s impossible to compare, the cost of the 1995 Kobe earthquake (a 7.3 earthquake) has been estimated at $100b in property and infrastructure damage. Human losses in Japan were 6,400 killed and 15,000 injured. The cost of recovery in Kobe? As of 2006, $3b in insurance losses, and $9b in long-term private finance to rebuild.

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Victorian Bushfires: Online Organizing for Relief

The photos and video are simply horrible to contemplate: vast firestorms sweeping entire towns from the Australian map, the flames trapping fleeing victims in their cares as they race from a scene of death and destruction. More than 160 are dead with the death toll likely to rise, and many thousands are homeless, many without food and water.

Online, the Victorian fires have quickly become a “flash cause,” spurring action from bloggers and Twitter mavens in Australia and around the world. On Facebook, several group have already attracted thousands of members, combining news updates with fundraising and expressions of concern and horror. Most of the online fundraising I’ve seen so far points donors to the Victoria unit of the Australian Red Cross, which is clearly in need of money and supplies to aid victims and the homeless.

Meanwhile, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is running a long blog post with literally hundreds of offers from Austrailians to open their homes to to those who have lost theirs in the bushfires. Following the #bushfires tag on Twitter brings in news updates – including the suspicion that the fires were deliberately set – as well as offers of aid and assistance. And then there are Tweets like this one:

Just found out someone I have know for many years died with her husband in the #bushfires at Steeles Creek. Numb.

The fires are being called Australia’s worst natural disaster. Over at GlobalVoices, blogger Kevin Rennie has an ongoing post with some very moving stories.

The Empty Sky … and the Quiet Network

Seven years on, I still look up at the empty sky every so often and remember. And, of course, sometimes I remember deep in my sleep, when the mechanisms of wakefulness and work and schedules aren’t in place to defend me from the worst of the images and the sounds and the smell. I spent much of September 11th, 2001 in my office above Lexington Avenue – and the rest trying to get home to my family.

But many of those memories aren’t of the moment, of the day itself; it’s the aftermath – those lonely months when being part of the world’s great metropolis couldn’t insulate anyone from individual loss and fear. And I’m struck from my vantage point of 2008 just how unconnected those times were in comparison to how I live now – to how we live now.

The network, such as it was, failed. Cell phones connected to nothing. Land lines were iffy. Bandwidth trickled. We watched television – the same video over and over and over again. We listened to the radio. And in New York, we walked a lot. For New Yorkers, this was an in-person event, a vast communal meet-up without the benefits of organizing technology. In truth, we reduced to the lowest needs on Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs for a while. Shelter and safety, that next meal – and the same for everyone we knew, our friends and families.

The sad, horrible social network of short messages appeared on lampposts, and park benches, and impromptu bulletin boards. Names and faces of the missing like ghostly pre-Twitter queries never to be answered – Facebook by printer and Scotch tape – pieces of paper so fresh in the first days, turning to tatters of running ink and blurred head shots in the wind and the rain … and much later … the snow and sleet of the worst New York winter.

Many bloggers were born in those long hours. You could feel the biological need to self-expression, and the parallel desire for more information than the traditional media could provide. You could almost feel the old web creaking, the html bending. I am absolutely convinced that some of the energy and drive to create our socially-empowered web was provided by those horrible events on a gorgeous September morning. Then too, as the demographers tell us, a newer generation came of age – all-too conscious of the stakes and driven by the idea of change, of not going back.

But as I considered writing about the roots of online social activism, I resisted the urge to pin too much on the events of that day – choosing, instead, to talk about the response to Hurricane Katrina four years later as a post-genesis moment. Still I remember those tattered notes all over New York – the last greated unwired social cause network. And I can’t help a glance at the empty sky.

Coming Around Again

I’m sitting here giving CauseWired its last look before it goes off to production next week, and rereading Chapter One’s account of the online reaction to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina while watching the current evacuation of New Orleans and other Gulf communities in the path of Gustav, the massive hurricane currently battering Cuba. The memories aren’t good ones.

To me, the flow of information online in the months (and sadly, years) after Katrina was a milestone in online social activism, a time when real people organized to hold their government accountable, raise money, and try to rebuild damaged lives. Like the CauseWired movement itself, New Orleans is still a work in progress – even as the camera trucks head back to the Gulf.

What will the online response be this time, if this storm ravages the gulf communities? Three years ago, media analyst Mark Glaser put the online response to Katrina in perfect context:

As the water finally starts to recede in New Orleans, the watershed for online journalism has been laid bare. Hurricane Katrina brought forth a mature, multi-layered online response that built on the sense of community after 9/11, the amateur video of the Southeast Asian tsunami disaster and July 7 London bombings, and the on-the-scene blogging of the Iraq War.

Yes, the 2005 Katrina response online was indeed “multi-layered.” But it wasn’t instant, indeed it evolved and grew over the weeks after the flood claimed 1,800 lives and government stood still. Since then, the network is both bigger and faster – millions on Facebook, millions of blogs, the instant call and response of Twitter, and the dozens of online social enterprise platforms primed to create new causes.

Look at Beth Kanter’s most recent experiment in online activism and fundraising to get a sense of speed and tactics. Beth raised $2,657 to cover the costs of college tuition for Leng Sopharath, an orphan in Cambodia in just 90 minutes, and then went on to raise nearly $4,000. As usual, Beth shares the sausage-making along with the sausage, and she makes a bunch of good points – none more important than this one:

This is something you probably can’t duplicate if you’re just starting out because I’ve spent five years using social media to build and nurture a network and banking social capital. It’s the network, stupid!

Yeah, Beth is totally connected to the nonprofit tech world and many of her fundraising supporters want to see campaigns like this succeed. But transpose Beth’s community standing to an event the size of Katrina, and multiply her by thousands of well-connected leaders and you get the idea (there are not one, but two examples of Beth’s canny use of technology in CauseWired).

Back to 2005 – there were limits to online organizing, to helping out in the crisis, to building a real cause online that made a difference. Here’s a bit from the book about the role of mainstream media – which is so clearly an important partner in this new world of online social activism:

…the blogging of Hurricane Katrina also clearly showed the limits of online support for disaster relief. Millions of dollars was directed to the American Red Cross, which many Americans later came to believe did not perform particularly well in the storm’s aftermath. The lack of electricity in the devastated areas kept many amateur journalists from covering the storm or its immediate aftermath. Meanwhile, some of the mainstream media – derided as an article of faith by bloggers – performed heroically, particularly the local press., the large-scale website of the Times-Picayune newspaper, became the online ground zero for reports from the city and was cited for its blogging when the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes (one for public service) for its coverage of Katrina. And most of us followed the horrific story on cable television, as that old-time dinosaur of 24-hour news CNN particularly distinguished itself.

Yet, I think’s role in the Katrina story transcends the old “we report, you read” formula for big news coverage – and it was central to how Katrina played out online, among the blogging community and a world of donors who wanted to help but felt powerless. After Katrina hit, reporters in the field updated the The Times-Picayune’s blog on a continuous basis. Traffic exploded from about 800,000 page views on a normal day to more than 30 million a day in the aftermath of the disaster. As evacuees scattered north and west of the region, they eventually were able to get their local news from the ongoing blogging at Accepting the Pulitzer, editor Jim Amoss paid tribute to the blog’s contributors, “who were integral to everything we published, and made us an around-the-clock vital link to readers scattered across the nation.”

I’d love your thoughts on this. How will we do it differently this time?

UPDATE: Andy Carvin launched the Gustav Information Center today on Ning, word being spread rapidly on Twitter – they’ll be using the tag #gustav if you want to follow. Home Depot already using the tag to update on stories in the Hurricane’s path.

UPDATE II: Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute has set up a Ning site of resources for journalists. To me, one of the great things about the response to Katrina three years ago (a rare silver lining in that tragic debacle) was the new cooperation between professional journalists and the growing social web.

UPDATE III: Gustav comes ashore. Best single resource is old-school: But great stuff on Twitter, and on-the-ground reports from GustavReporter. Beth’s got a bunch of links for virtual volunteering opportunities.

UPDATE IV: Via Marnie Webb, the Gustav Tracker app for txting “safe” or “need help” messages to the network.

UPDATE V: Not as bad as feared, thankfully. Great Q&A with Andy Carvin on the Poynter site.

When News Becomes the Cause: Twitter and the LA Shake

One of the chapters in CauseWired is about instant organizing campaigns, or “flash causes,” as I’ve called them. The biggest story in that chapter covers the wildfires in southern California last year and the work of blogger Nate Ritter in spreading good information in a time of public uncertainty and no small amount of panic. Tuesday’s earthquake near Los Angeles was another reminder of how media technology and social networks can fill the gaps in traditional media, and actually help people by spreading reliable information. Blogger MG Siegler said it well at VentureBeat:

When natural disasters strike, people want news ASAP. Twitter is simply very fast at disseminating information. We saw this when a large 7.8 earthquake struck China back in May and we’re seeing it again today. Today, it was especially true when used in conjunction with the social conversation and aggregation site FriendFeed. Minutes after the quake, I had various accounts of it and maps of its epicenter.

Professional news operations can move quickly; but semi-pro’s and amateurs are faster, and they’re using the tools of the whole network. The challenge, I think, is getting that information beyond the cadre of super-wired, always-on, early adopters and out to millions of not-so-techie folks during an emergency. Still, you can’t argue with the speed. From a post by Biz Stone on the Twitter blog, check out this chart showing the surge in quake-related posts on Tuesday:

Clearly, Twitter users were ahead of the local TV stations in getting the word out: news spiked at the one-minute mark, post-rumble. Wrote Stone: “Twitter is increasingly being described as a personal news-wire—shared world events like this morning’s earthquake near Los Angeles support the definition.”

More coverage:

Los Angeles earthquake chokes phone calls, not Twitter

Stop Trusting the Internet! [ie, beware of fakes]

Cause-Related News: Going Outside the Mainstream Media

In a previous life, I was an editor and reporter for a Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly newspaper in the Bronx. In retrospect, a decade in community journalism at a newspaper where the best stories literally walked in off the street and demanded the editor’s ear was appropriate experience for the following years spent reporting stories online and then urging people to take up causes. Community journalism was activist journalism; we adhered to strict standards of reporting but we also demonstrated a definitive point of view – a purpose beyond selling newspapers. And that experience showed just how clearly compelling stories with real human beings could bring about change – whether fighting city hall over zoning or exposing corruption. As reporters, we didn’t call ourselves social activists but we were clearly part of a a culture of social activism, a key factor in the formula for protest and change. In short, the stories we wrote helped to drive the causes we wrote about.

Those were the days before a commercial Internet shortened the distance between information and action. These days, social media networks can break stories and secure support for causes that the mainstream media ignores.

In late September, 2008 Cyclone Ivan hit slashed across the African island of Madagascar with winds of more than 125 miles per hour, bringing heavy rains and massive across the island. Government officials reported that the cyclone left about 190,000 people homeless and caused heavy damage to crops, roads and public buildings. More than 80 people died. The storm hit Madagascar during an unusually heavy rainy season, to the ground was already saturated and flood damage has been sustained from previous storms. The Republic of Madagascar, formerly the Malagasy Republic, comprises the world’s fourth largest island, a poor nation in the Indian Ocean that nonetheless enjoys vital importance as a center of somewhat fragile biodiversity.

Media coverage of the cyclone, a storm roughly the size and strength of Hurricane Katrina, was minimal – a few wire service stories, and postings on sites like In the United States, there was little coverage and no video on the cable news stations. Indeed, I learned about Cyclone Ivan by reading Beth Kanter’s blog. Beth is a self-described “Web Technology Evangelist” and one of the world’s leading experts on the effects of social media on nonprofit organizations. She’s a prolific blogger with a vast network of online correspondents, and I’m always surprised by what turns up in her feed; her curious mind and extraordinary linking powers always bring in some fascinating stories. And it was Beth who told me about the work of blogger Joan Razafimharo and by extension, the social venture known as Foko Madagascar.

Foko Madagascar was formed quickly after the gathering of the exclusive TED conference’s regional expansion into Africa in 2007. The conference’s theme was “Africa the next Chapter” and several social entrepreneurs and bloggers pooled their activism to start the Foko project, to help support Madagascar’s development. That work took several forms: a biodiversity initiative (Madagascar has some of the highest biodiversity in the world and is home to as many 12,000 plant species but struggles with the use of fire as an gricultural tool by poor farmers on the island), a women’s craft skills program aimed at helping poor women to make additional income from embroidery, sewing, and weaving, and a blogging project. In partnership with the Rising Voices initiative, the Foko Blog Club is teaching young people in Madagascar blogging skills. Rising Voices is a project of Global Voices, the “non-profit global citizens’ media project” founded at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, a research think-tank focused on the Internet’s impact on society and it aims to “spread the tools and techniques of citizen media to communities that are under-represented on the conversational web.”

Lova Rakotomalala, Foko’s project manager for health, described the goals of the blogging project on Foko’s blog:

We all know too well how actively participating in the global conversation through digital media can have a major impact in our way of thinking and approach towards development and global awareness. Joining the global conversation is critical on many levels. Firstly, it fosters the exchange of ideas with projects with similar goals such as the former and current rising voices grantees. Many creative ideas have been tested in different settings all over the world; learning from the rest of the world’s experiences can only help our project be more efficient in achieving our goals. Secondly, it allows Malagasy people to illustrate and directly share with the rest of the world their perspectives on issues that they’d know best. Thirdly, joining the global conversation will expand the network of people with similar interests nationally and internationally, connecting them and promoting positive collaborations.

In February, 2008 the effort to connect developing regions like Madagasgar to the wired world came into sharp focus. Joan Razafimharo covered the cyclone on her own blog and sent out calls for help to her network of digital friends. The Foko blog group kept track of YouTube video coverage and posted many links to blogs worldwide. One particular post from author and blogger Chris Mooney on his blog The Intersection stood out:

“When Britney shaves her head, everybody hears about it.When Ana Nicole Smith dies, everybody hears about it.But when Madagascar gets struck by a record six tropical cyclones in one season, killing hundreds and displacing perhaps as many as a hundred thousand, not to mention jeopardizing food supplies for many more, does it garner major and sustained U.S. press coverage?”

Yes, the hundreds of people who read Beth Kanter’s blog daily or subcribe to her RSS feed or follow her on Twitter heard about the Madagasgar disaster. The bloggers at Foko (whose motto is “It takes a village to raise an idea”) had fullfilled – at least in a small way – one of the main goals of the new organization, to join the worldwide dialogue by blogging their way into the flow of news. And links directed aid through the United Nations World Food Programme. It wasn’t necessarily revolutionary, but it did show the power of one blogger telling a compelling story to a larger audience – a blogger with a real point of view not content to sit on the sidelines.

Geeks Fill the Info Gaps in Disaster Response

I came across a great post from October by veteran Web developer Nate Ritter, who wrote about how Twitter feeds and other social media tools really helped out in the wildfires around San Diego. Here’s a taste, but read the whole thing:

Even though I was aggregating two TV channels, a radio station, a local newspaper, friends and even strangers’ eyewitness reports via a free phone number, email, the contact form on this blog, SMS, phone calls and other twitter feeds, it wasn’t enough. For three days straight I’ve been pushing this content out. It was a one-man communication station. And although it was helpful for many people (both locally and internationally), I am very glad the worst has come and gone — not only because of the disaster, but because I don’t know that I could continue. It’s been extremely tiring.

As we’re learning that mainstream media is unable to keep up with the demand necessary to distribute information, for whatever reasons, there is a major opportunity for us, the normal every day “Joe’s” to make a major difference.

In working on the CauseWired project, I’m taking an in-depth look at the online response to Hurricane Katrina in and around New Orleans – a response, by the way, that continues to this day. If you have any stories like Nate’s about how the digital network helps in responding when big-time trouble strikes, please let me know in comments. I’m looking for compelling first-person stories. [Hat tip: Beth Kanter at NetSquared]