From Thousands of Miles Away, Students Use Crisis Mapping Tool to Aid Chile's Relief Efforts

March 26, 2010Bookmark and Share
A screenshot of the Ushahidi-Chile Situation Room
The Ushahidi crisis map provides news and information for relief workers and community members.
Students at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) are using the latest digital technology and crisis mapping tools to aid Chilean earthquake relief efforts with the web-based platform Ushahidi.
On Feb. 27, Patrick Meier, Ushahidi’s director of crisis mapping and strategic partnerships, was speaking at a conference at Columbia on the role of digital technology in international affairs, sponsored by student-run blog The Morningside Post. Earlier that morning an 8.8 magnitude earthquake—one of the largest on record—had struck central Chile, tearing apart homes, bridges and highways, and killing hundreds. As Meier described his group’s efforts to monitor and map emergency incidents in Haiti, the topic quickly turned to how SIPA students could do the same for Chile. The Ushahidi-Chile Situation Room was launched that same day, and within 48 hours, 75 SIPA students were trained to monitor and map reports.
Ushahidi, which means "testimony" in Swahili, was developed to allow citizen journalists to map reports of post-election violence and peace efforts in Kenya, using information submitted on the web and via mobile phones. What started as an ad hoc group of volunteers has since become an organization that creates customizable crisis maps that track everything from crime patterns to weather emergencies to elections.
“One of the things that students at SIPA do remarkably well is to find ways to connect new forms of information gathering to solve problems and confront crises,” said SIPA Dean John Coatsworth. “The earthquake demonstrated that during a catastrophic event, even a highly developed country can face insurmountable problems when responding to a crisis. This initiative allows people thousands of miles away to communicate with those who need help in Chile and to transmit those messages to people who can intervene.”
Reports come from inside Chile via radio, online and television media reports, and from SMS, phone, email, Twitter and Facebook messages sent by the public. The SIPA volunteers monitor the information, identify GPS coordinates for each report and then geo-tag them on the easy-to-read Ushahidi map. 
 “Ushahidi democratizes the field of humanitarian affairs,” said Anahi Ayala Iacucci (SIPA’10), director of the Ushahidi-Chile Situation Room. "It’s no longer a top-down process with relief workers simply telling people what they need. Now people who need help can also reach out and ask for specific assistance. Ushahidi aggregates information from all sources and it is these sources who confirm the validity of each report."
The earthquake in Chile destroyed roads and bridges, isolating rural mountain villages. The SIPA team collected more than 1,000 messages such as "need urgent assistance in the following areas where aid has not yet come...have no water, electricity or food." The students then mapped alternative routes and provided information about bridges, which the military could use in reconstruction, enabling residents to gain access to supplies. The Ushahidi-Chile Situation Room has also kept communities informed about the locations of field hospitals and re-opened pharmacies and grocery stores.
The Ushahidi-Chile effort brought together students who had been researching crisis mapping for a U.N. agency in Iraq with another student group that focuses on how to use new media in international affairs. Together, they are now working to transfer ownership of the platform to Chilean organizations by the end of spring, so it can be used for long-term reconstruction efforts. They are also focusing on outreach efforts to nongovernmental groups as well as Chile’s Ministry of Health, information technology companies and Chilean universities so they can establish their own situation rooms in preparation for other crises.
“Universities have assets that other organizations do not—a large group of passionate, dedicated students who can organize quickly and devote significant amounts of time,” said New Media Task Force co-chair Jaclyn Carlsen (SIPA’11). “In the long run, this will allow universities to be first responders in humanitarian crises, and SIPA has a great role to play in this movement.”