About the Author: Maria C. Alvarado is a Public Diplomacy Officer in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Over 150 innovators in technology and development attended Haiti Tech Meet-Up at the State Department on May 10, 2010. Attendees came from all sectors; several of them had just returned from doing work in Haiti. Katie Stanton, who serves in the Office of Innovation at State, opened up the conference with a Haitian proverb, "Men anpil chay pa lou," which translated means, "Many hands make a workload lighter." Katie said, “This is exactly what we saw in the minutes following the disaster of communities, particularly the tech community, coming together to help bring relief immediately and effectively to Haiti.”
Panelists spoke on the successes and lessons learned from the Haiti Text Campaign, challenges to creating a safe environment for women and girls, ways to improve tracking and data sharing during a crisis, opportunities in mobile banking, and empowering Haitians through education. The overall theme of the day was to highlight efforts to rebuild Haiti better using the latest technology and to see how it has been used to empower the people of Haiti. In the spirit of the day, speakers gave their presentations using Ignite -- a unique format where each presenter must make their point using twenty slides, fifteen seconds per slide, for a total of five minutes. To make the conference available to a much broader audience, including viewing parties in Haiti, the event was livestreamed and questions were taken from the online audience.
Caitlin Klevorick, Special Assistant to Counselor Cheryl Mills, moderated the panel on empowering Haitian women through instruction in technology and inclusion in the planning stages of rebuilding efforts. Caitlin passed on a favorite quote of Secretary Clinton's regarding the power of women as community leaders, “If you teach a woman to fish, she feeds the entire village.” Emily Jacobi, co-director of Digital Democracy who recently returned from Haiti, showcased a highly successful project that has taught Haitian women the basic skills of digital photography. Not only has the project produced a poignant snapshot of Haiti as seen through the eyes of women, but it is also being used to bolster support for including women in every step of the rebuilding effort.
Dan Stoneking, Director of FEMA's Private Sector Office of External Affairs, moderated the Tracking in a Crisis panel. Speakers included Prem Ramaswami of Google, Eddie Pickle of Open Geo, and George Reyes of PayCargo, LLC. Participants addressed the challenge of bringing together the numerous helping hands on the ground and ensuring that the wealth of knowledge that each of them possesses is "data banked" for others to share. As an example, Google established a general website to track the disaster response, help people find loved ones, and to direct those wishing to donate to relief efforts to reputable organizations. In another example, a tweet for help by someone looking for food in one area of Port-au-Prince was answered by another tweet by someone located only a few minutes away who could help. Digital fora like these have allowed for "bottom up data collection," giving ordinary people the tools to respond in a meaningful way to the crisis and reconstruction efforts.
USAID's e-Commerce Director, Judy Payne, moderated the panel on mobile banking. Members of the panel included Mobile Accord's Brad Blanken, the American Red Cross' Scott DiPretoro, and One Cent Banking's Sean Rankin. Being able to get money from an ATM or complete a money transfer is not a revolutionary idea. However, these organizations are on the frontlines by simply providing ATM cards to Haitians and giving people the opportunity to complete money transfers via SMS. While speaking to mobile banking's many advantages, especially the role it has played in making financial resources accessible to Haitians, the panel admitted that mobile banking is still a developing solution. One of the largest hurdles at this point is getting investors to collaborate with each other to make these transactions faster and cross-cutting.
The last panel of the day was moderated by Suzanne Hall, New Media Advisor for the Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau at the State Department. Panelists included Jeff Nesbit of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dan Hodges of Conceptiviti, and Al Leandre, President and Founder of Vyalex Management Solutions. Panelists discussed the critical need to limit brain drain from Haiti by creating new learning opportunities for Haitian students in Port-au-Prince and beyond. Jeff detailed NSF's efforts to provide a distance learning solution for Haitian engineering students through content from U.S. higher education institutions and partnerships with critical private sector partners, like Discovery. Hodges discussed the potential of raising literacy rates in Haiti -- for children and adults alike -- through mobile phones. And Al, a member of the Haitian Diaspora who spends a lot of time in his home country, provided an important view from the ground, including a reminder of the tragic death of many of Haiti's educators in the January 12 quake.
The Haiti Tech Meet-Up provided a critically important forum for influential "tech evangelists" to network and plan next steps for helping build Haiti back better. It is important that the momentum that the world saw immediately following the earthquake be maintained and fueled by continued efforts to connect in person and online. Today's event helped many of us -- in the U.S. government, the private sector, academia, civil society and non-governmental organizations -- take a huge step in that direction.
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