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Technology and the Rebuilding of Haiti

A SXSW panel spells out how mobile technology has the potential to be an enormous help in disaster zones around the world.

I attended an interesting panel at SXSW Interactive on Monday titled "Architecture, Technology and the Rebuilding of Haiti." While frog isn’t typically in the architecture or disaster relief business, there were parts of the talk that seemed relevant to what we do (and what we have the potential to do), specifically in the field of mobile technology. 

The panel was presented by Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity, and Dan Shine of the 50x15 Foundation in Austin. Unlike many involved in the effort to rebuild Haiti who are focusing on immediate responses, Architecture for Humanity is looking at long term reconstruction and urban planning for an entire country that was leveled, in part due to the absence of ANY building codes. And now, with less than 90 days to the start of hurricane season, there is a great concern for the population there who are currently living in tents.

So, the presenters posed some interesting ideas to the crowd, which I scribbled down. It seems to me that there are quite a few opportunities here for a company like frog to put mobile communications and the technology around mobile devices to good use.

Crowd sourced surveying, damage assessments, and data collection
The presenters talked about how ubiquitous cell phones are around the world, which we know already. But what if you utilize local communities and their mobile communication devices in disaster zones to collect damage assessments and surveys? You could essentially crowdsource this activity with the local population using their mobile phones. When the NGOs and major relief agencies arrive in the damaged country with their smart phones and laptops, they could then easily aggregate all this data to create a rapid and accurate assessment of where help is needed most and which routes are accessible. Cellular phone infrastructures are less likely to be damaged after a disaster like the earthquakes in Haiti, and they can be repaired faster than other types of communication channels. That’s why they make the most sense to use for data collecting, especially in remote areas that may not be accessible for extended period following a disaster. 

Augmented reality for urban planning
This was an interesting one to me. Sinclair and Shine discussed how, during the reconstruction phase following a disaster, there are various architects all working independently to rebuild schools, hospitals, and residential structures as fast as possible. It’s really just one huge mess of ad-hoc urban planning. But according to them, it doesn't have to be, as long as you have the right tools in place. The panel presenters declared outright how much they would love to have a mobile app that uses something like Google Goggles to visualize all current building projects in a SkecthUp/Google Earth format right in the field. This would help architects put their work into an overall urban plan context on site. What a use for augmented reality on a mobile device!

Data visualization applications
Communication and coordination is always a massive problem after a major disaster. In the first month or two after an earthquake or hurricane, when the media attention is focused on the area, local distribution points are often choked with supplies while donations and other funds swell NGO bank accounts. The sad fact of life is that most of the materials sent to places like Haiti go to waste. Food spoils before it can be distributed. Generators arrive by the truck load but there is no diesel to put in them. Medical supplies don’t get to where they are needed the most. The tools are just not there to ensure that supplies are inventoried and distributed correctly. Plus, most NGOs, military, and relief agencies that arrive on site go in blind; they don't know where to direct their efforts. When they do find out where they are needed most, they often don't know how to safely get there.

Decentralized power generation and smart grids
In the U.S. we talk a lot about smart grids and retro fitting things to be more green, but what if you could start over and rethink power from the ground up? Almost all infrastructure is gone in Haiti — wiped out in 20 seconds. It’s a clean slate. So, what if power was generated on site where it was needed via solar or wind and the grid was only there to help level the load/demand? Instead of retrofitting an outdated system, think of what the system should be in the first place.

It’s clear that technology is at the center of the rebuilding efforts in Haiti and that it ought to be in many other places around the world. It seems to me that a company like frog has the opportunity to be in the mix as well.

Michael McDaniel is a senior visual designer at frog. He is also the creator of the Reaction Housing System, a rapid-response emergency housing solution.