Jan 18

What if Disaster Relief Were Run Like an Open Source Project?

Today I watched two hours of Haiti news coverage. It breaks my heart to see the devastation in the area. I’m also a bit concerned that government bureaucracy could slow down crucial relief efforts.

If you check whitehouse.gov, we can give money and pay attention to what’s happening. But what if I have a big company and I can actually implement solutions much faster than a government organization can? Should I want to passively observe the devastation?

What if Obama used his massive power with the media to crowd source relief? I would imagine the first line of order would be to get communication in the area and relief workers to give out food and water. One of the telcos could step forth and various water and food companies could come forward. UPS actually does logistical work and could help coordinate some of the shipping to a Haiti port.

Doctors and pharmaceutical companies could offer their services. Airlines could fly them there.

After this, there would need to be security to keep the peace as well as efforts to offer shelter. I’m not sure the military could get crowd sourced, but Architecture for Humanity allows architects to contribute ideas for sustainable housing in developing nations. Obama could use the winning designs and then the fledgling building supply companies could offer up housing.

Why would these companies offer these services for nothing or next to nothing? The same reason why developers contribute to open source: for fulfillment and credibility.
1.) If Obama comes out and says, “We could count on American Airlines to deliver our thought leadership teams to Haiti on time,” it’s worth more than any add they could put on TV. If he says “Southwestern Bell really dropped the ball with our communication strategy”, the opposite rules apply. Obama and his staff can hold parts of the puzzle accountable, which keeps them honest regardless of payment.
2.) One backlink/dedicated page from the biggest crowdsourced project to date (Haiti relief from whitehouse.gov) is worth more than just about any backlink an SEO expert could buy you. You’d also want to consider all of the residual backlinks you’d get from people discussing specific parts of the project.
3.) It’s the right thing to do and giving product away is often cheaper than advertising.

This would obviously require “architects” familiar with this type of work to coordinate. But given how long government contracts can take to get through and the bureaucracy and expense involved, isn’t it the right thing to do? Shouldn’t that be what “Yes We Can” means?

  • David Patton

    Open source response to crisis can be chaotic, but spontaneous and fast as all information is shared. The best rise to the top as competition is focused on a solution. Energy and attention are focused where the problem demands, where need is greatest.

    Closed system response wants to be controlled, hierarchical and bureaucratic, by the book, and slow. Competition is about control and power, not on solutions. Best and worst have little meaning as energy is wasted and resources scattered inefficiently.

    The corollary to this would be a strong leader stepping up, taking control and exercising vested powers, directing resources and specifically targeting the problem. This we’ve yet to see.

  • Cliff Tyllick

    Dedicated as I am to open source solutions, the specter of even more relief flights chaotically arriving at an airport with no control tower, no fuel supplies, and a restricted ability to handle cargo is too frightening to fathom. Even as it was, there was at least one near collision before someone — in this case, the U.S. military — brought order to the airport operations.

    For better or worse, relief operations do require coordination. As just one example, if food arrives with no facilities to store it and no means of distributing it, it will sit there, blocking shipments of medical supplies. Only so much can come into and be distributed out of any airport, and Port au Prince’s cramped single runway is no exception. With fuel supplies limited and roads blocked by debris, that airport could — and very nearly did — get so jammed with planes and supplies that there would be no room to operate. And it would take just one collision on take-off or landing to shut the whole airport down for an indeterminate period. There is only one other airport with a paved runway in Haiti, and it’s more than 100 miles to the north in Cap Haitien. Where I live, that’s about a two-hour drive. But neither of the two roads linking Cap Haitien to Port au Prince is the straight, level, six-lane interstate we take for granted. Indeed, for significant stretches, it doesn’t even look like these roads are paved. Oh, and that second airport? Its single runway is only 4900 feet long — not 9900 feet like the one in Port au Prince. In other words, a C-5 transport would have barely enough room to land, and probably couldn’t take off again.

    You mention that a UPS could help “coordinate some of the shipping to a Haiti port.” Well, there are only two seaports in Haiti, and the earthquake destroyed the wharves, pier, cranes, and approach roads at the bigger of the two (Port au Prince). The second, smaller port is, again, Cap Haitien. It is a container port, but lacks the large cranes that were lost at Port au Prince. And then there’s the matter of those roads.

    Even ferrying goods around the area by helicopter has been problematic. In the areas damaged by the earthquake, the safest place to be until the aftershocks stop is out in the open — so the survivors are massed in the only places where helicopters can land. When the helicopter can’t actually land, it takes longer to offload whatever supplies it has brought in.

    Yes, open source has many strengths. But open source is not a panacea. To avoid adding to this disaster, all parties would have to first come to the table, agree on priorities, define roles, and then work out a plan. Hmmm, that sounds like what people do when they form governments. So maybe the best thing, as people lie trapped under rubble or free but without food, water, or any way to treat their injuries, is to just cut to the chase and use the governments we’ve already formed.

    And then later we can see how we did and come up with a better plan for the next crisis.

  • http://michellesblog.net Michelle


    A closed approach is good with a good architect. Opening things up would still require someone who is beyond experienced in disaster recovery, no doubt. I just figure that instead of asking for just money, we could ask the public directly for what we need. It’s a more direct approach.

  • http://www.valeriebooth.com Valerie Booth

    I can sense your frustration and desire to make things happen and wanted to let you know that more is happening than is making the mainstream media.

    In an odd sense, philanthropy is open source disaster relief. People and corporations with resources and abilities to GIVE, create or make happen the products or services required for relief, at will.

    The response to the Red Cross text-to-donate campaign is evidence that philanthropy as open-source disaster relief works without any need for recognition (i.e., on whitehouse.gov).

    The fact that business owners have stepped forward with money, services and commodities (at no charge and without prompting) suggests we already have an open source model for disaster relief. Hank Asher is one such person. He basically offered up his private jet to fly relief missions back and forth to Haiti and contributed 50 satellite phones to the relief effort.

    At the end of the day, he is paying for fuel, pilot services, medical equipment, phones, maintenance on the aircraft and Lord knows what else as part of these relief missions. Those are real costs (remember, open source is not free). The pilots have families to support. The fuel is sold by a concession at an airport; they have to pay their people, maintain their equipment to regulated standards. The phone supplier incurred a cost for the phones… it just goes on!

    Where government “intervention” is concerned, I think we have to be realistic about our expectations for open source.

    People with hearts know what the right thing to do is. The evidence is right in front of us. They’re already there for Haiti in body and spirit – and they are still giving.

    Michael Keizer wrote a very relevant article about disaster logistics at http://michaelkeizer.com/humourless/2010/logistics-questions-around-the-haiti-earthquake/. I went there to relieve my initial frustration at not being able to do more than donate. I learned that aid efforts are actually VERY coordinated.

    Now, I check LogCluster (http://www.logcluster.org) daily and Haiti.com (http://www.haiti.com) throughout the day.
    .-= Valerie Booth´s last blog ..Hank Asher: Philanthropist on the Ground in Haiti =-.

  • Pingback: Philanthropy is Open Source Disaster Relief for Haiti | The Daily Fugue

  • http://www.valeriebooth.com Valerie Booth

    Here is an open source project to manage disaster relief!


  • http://www.valeriebooth.com Valerie Booth

    Hi Michelle,

    Here is a link to a post by Hank Asher about Haiti.

    He’s colorful to say the least and extremely effective.
    .-= Valerie Booth´s last blog ..Children of the Promise Bring Babies to US for Medical Care =-.

  • http://www.valeriebooth.com Valerie Booth

    Here is an example of crowd sourcing “needs” that serves as a smaller scale example of your idea.


    On this site, the needs are called “shifts” and they are not necessarily charity-based. A community member posts a need for a shift and other community members respond by applying for the shift. Shift workers do not receive monetary compensation.

    With thanks to Michael Keizer for explaining the difference between crowd sourcing and open source.
    .-= Valerie Booth´s last blog ..Hank Asher’s New Blog =-.

  • http://luang-prabang-accommodation.blogspot.com David

    Nice posting,very informative, Your suggestions were very helpful!

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