Haiti One Year Later: Technology Lessons for Disaster Response

A year ago today, Haiti was devastated by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake.

With millions of people still struggling to survive, the outbreak of cholera in the country and political tensions caused by the recent elections, Haiti remains in a state of crisis.

Microsoft is one of many companies and organizations involved in the relief effort in Haiti since day one. Our Disaster Response Team has responded to disasters for more than 25 years, with the goal of providing lead non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government organizations (GO) and inter-government organizations (IGO) such as the United Nations with technology to help them communicate and coordinate relief activities.

We’ve learned from each disaster, all of which vary in scale, impact and challenges. As we look back over the last year since the Haiti earthquake, from a technology perspective, we’ve had two key learnings that shape the way we approach disaster response.

First, public and private collaboration is at the heart of preparedness.

Establishing strong partnerships in advance of a disaster greatly reduces response times and the ability for relief organizations to deliver aid. Since 2004, Microsoft has partnered with NetHope, a membership organization of some of the world's largest humanitarian relief organizations, which ensures organizations have the technology they need to react quickly and effectively.

The NetHope Emergency Working Group was activated the day the earthquake happened and NetHope was able to establish temporary telecommunications infrastructure to enable humanitarian agencies to communicate and speed relief to victims within a few days of the earthquake. The success of our collaboration with NetHope led us to reach out to even more NGOs to partner with them in advance and make sure they have the software they need to be better prepared for disasters.

Another key learning was the power of cloud computing to help in coordinating disaster relief. In a disaster, you need to be able to run software whether the infrastructure has stayed intact or been completely destroyed. You need the ability to provide scale, speed and resiliency to ensure peak performance for websites, portals and solutions that provide valuable, real-time information to hundreds of thousands of people during an incident.

Even with limited infrastructure in Haiti, relief agencies were able to coordinate efforts through online collaboration portals leveraging generators, wireless networks, and satellites.

For example, we helped the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to provide a place for aid organizations to exchange information and collaborate on Haiti. OneResponse, an online platform based on Microsoft SharePoint, contains vital pieces of data such as contact lists, meeting schedules and results of needs assessments to assist with the humanitarian response.

Due to the rapid pace of change during a disaster, in addition to low total cost of ownership, we know that ease of use and customization are critical in this space. This was especially true in Haiti. As an NGO on the ground during a disaster, you’re not going to be able to apply heavy IT architecture or invest resources in development at the spur of the moment. 

These are some of the needs that we are looking at closely as we explore and develop additional cloud-based software and services for disaster response, which we plan to deploy in the near future.  We will continue to work closely with our NGO, GO and IGO partners to test such services and applications and provide feedback during the development stage to make sure we are helping them deliver disaster relief and aid quickly and effectively.

We recognize that our work in Haiti must go far beyond response efforts. The vision to help Haiti “build back better” means our investments must be both scalable and sustainable. As noted in a blog post by Orlando Ayala, our corporate vice president and chairman of emerging markets, in September Microsoft and a number of humanitarian organizations made a $1.5M Clinton Global Initiative commitment, with a focus on providing digital access to schools and NGOs. 

Our work in Haiti is just beginning (you can read about our efforts focused on education here). With our partners, we hope to help Haiti’s children continue to learn and enable local jobs to contribute to a sustainable recovery in Haiti.

For more on Microsoft's response to the disaster in Haiti, read this feature story on the Microsoft News Center. Below is a picture of me with several children outside a school in Petit-Goave, Haiti in May 2010. The photo was taken by George Durham.

Posted by Claire Bonilla
Senior Director, Microsoft Disaster Response

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