TORONTO – The Internet proved to be the best link between people in Haiti and the outside world in the hours after Tuesday’s devastating earthquake, with blog posts, tweets and video conferencing getting the word out when phones went dead.
But the sad reality is that few in the impoverished country had the means to go online.
While Twitter was being barraged with messages about the earthquake on Wednesday – in the afternoon several hundred tweets a minute were being posted under the haiti hashtag – relatively few originated from inside the country.
According to the most recent estimates from the World Bank, just over 10 per cent of Haitians have access to the Internet.
Still, the Internet had a huge impact in establishing the initial lines of communication with aid workers already on the ground in Haiti, reported both Red Cross Canada and Oxfam Canada, which used Skype video conferencing in lieu of phones.
“That was a really key moment, that is a different experience than in the past,” said Alexandra Lopoukhine of Oxfam Canada, which works together with CARE Canada, Oxfam-Quebec and Save the Children Canada to run the Humanitarian Coalition in times of crisis.
“The Internet maintains some level of connectivity. But of course not everyone would have access to Internet or to a computer – or electricity even to run that computer.”
Bloggers and social networking users in Haiti posted that their phones were rendered mostly useless after the quake. Many in the country rely on prepaid cellphones and one of the most active Twitter users in Haiti on Wednesday, radio DJ Carel Pedre, reported he couldn’t add more minutes to his account.
Luke Renner, the founder of U.S.-based Fireside International, a non-profit that works to connect the poor with technology, is currently based in Haiti and had to use the Internet to get in contact with his family back home.
“Luke was communicating through the night almost exclusively on Facebook and Twitter – it pretty much (proves) his whole reason of being there,” said his father Ray in an interview.
“I would say in general the average Haitian probably does not have Internet access. In the major metropolitan areas there is but out in the village areas, the rural areas, not so much.”
Around the world, social media was being utilized in a bid to connect with family and friends in Haiti, even if indirectly.
Hands Across Haiti is a social networking site for humanitarian workers stationed in the country and it was being flooded with messages asking for help in tracking down loved ones.
“Leaving to look for a list of people – will try hard to report back,” wrote Twitter user Troy Livesay, who also writes a blog about his missionary work in Haiti.
“Church groups are singing throughout the city all through the night in prayer. It is a beautiful sound in the middle of a horrible tragedy,” he tweeted earlier.
Doctors Without Borders was helped by Twitter in recruiting volunteers, said Paul McPhun, a member of the organization’s emergency management team.
“We currently luckily have no shortage of volunteers. People who know the movement, have worked within (it), are phoning us, are on email, are on Twitter,” he said.
“Everybody wants to get involved, everybody’s willing to put their time into this emergency response. And so we’re trying to match the profiles of the people with the best experience, the people with the French language skills. That’s moving very rapidly.”
Lopoukhine said NGOs are still experimenting with how to best use social media in disasters but it has already proven fruitful, even in crises when the world isn’t watching.
“The last time (the Humanitarian Coalition) really got together and used social media – actually for the first time -was around an appeal in East Africa about a strong famine warning. So we started to use social media as a way to garner interest, in an appeal that wasn’t really publicized in the media,” she said.
“It was a great way for us to reach our audience … and the end goal is to ensure that more people know that there is a crisis and there is a positive way to respond to that emergency.”