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In the year since a catastrophic earthquake devastated the island nation of Haiti, killing an estimated 230,000 and leaving more than 1 million people homeless, scientists have made significant contributions to meeting the human rights needs of Haitians.
During a meeting of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, held on the eve of the earthquake’s anniversary, scientists involved in providing assistance described how scientific aid has extended beyond traditional rebuilding efforts to helping restore the spirit of the Haitian people.
Scientists have been involved in identifying psychosocial needs, establishing communication networks for reporting violence, developing survey methods for determining the prevalence of unemployment and homelessness, and in giving the most vulnerable a voice even in the direst of living conditions. Scientists have also played a major role in creating monitoring systems to gauge the effectiveness of measures that have been taken to assist affected populations.
“The scientific community generally responds to disasters by collecting data to understand the crisis,” said Alex Dehgan, science and technology adviser at USAID. “In Haiti, a shift occurred and we saw the scientific community engaging with the development groups and that was a plus.”
To be sure, speakers said at the panel discussion, conditions in Haiti remain dire. Currently, 500 camps are providing housing to hundreds of thousands of people. Food is in short supply. Sexual assaults and other violent crime are rampant. A recent cholera outbreak has killed nearly 4000 Haitians. It is imperative that the science community continue its strong engagement, they said, both to serve people’s needs today and to help the nation build its own scientific capacity for the future.
The discussion came during a day-long meeting of the Science and Human Rights Coalition at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. The coalition is a network of scientific membership organizations that recognizes a role for science and scientists in efforts to advance human rights; its goal is to support communication and partnerships on human rights within the research community and between the scientific and human rights communities.
AAAS itself has been engaged in the Haitian recovery effort on a number of fronts. Several AAAS S&T Policy Fellows have visited the country to help steer water and hygiene relief efforts and to address infrastructure problems that were either created or exacerbated by the earthquake. And the AAAS Caribbean Division and other U.S. partners have worked with leading Haitian scientists and science educators on plans to build the nation’s science and engineering capacity.
At the 11 January Coalition meeting, Dehgan discussed the ways in which technology was used in the aftermath of the disaster to coordinate services, provide for human needs, and to make connections between people so that life could go on.
One such innovation was a base layer map of Port-au-Prince, which was edited by users around the world, via OpenStreetMap. This map was then used by Ushahidi, an opensource software platform that collects information via the web and sms to map crisis information. Thanks to a shortcode that was established after the earthquake, Ushahidi received more 80,000 text messages, as well as data from blogs and Twitter, that enabled responders to avoid blocked roads, connect people with their families, and to get services to places where they were most needed.
USAID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation worked together to develop the Haitian Mobile Money Initiative, which allowed people to transfer money through their cell phones, leapfrogging over traditional banking systems. The same technology was used to allow citizens to vote through their mobile phones, eliminating the problems involved with paper ballots and giving people more trust in the process.
Mobile phones have also been useful in collecting information about Haitians and their living conditions. In return for responding to surveys, Haitians would get cell phone credits, said Fritz Scheuren, vice president of Statistics and
Methodology at NORC (the National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago and a statistician with Statistics without Borders very successful and resulted in a high response rate to surveys because mobile phones were in wide use in Haiti even before the earthquake.
Technology is playing a major role in helping Haitians to better govern themselves in camp environments and to help the most vulnerable of the population rise up against violence, speakers said.
In Haiti, gender-based violence is a major problem, according to panelist Emily Jacobi, co-director of Digital Democracy. By working directly with women on these issues, Jacobi’s group has empowered them to take on more of a leadership role in the camps so that violence can be stemmed. Through the creation of digital maps to track incidents of violent crime in the camps as well as through blogs to help women connect through their shared experiences, Digital Democracy has worked with different groups within Haiti to harness technology so that their voices can be heard.
Although science and technology have made a significant difference in the lives of Haitians since the earthquake, efforts need to be made to transfer the scientific knowledge and technological know-how to Haitian people themselves. Fritz Deshommes, the vice rector for research at the State University of Haiti, expressed concern that long-term prospects for Haiti may suffer if more attention is not paid to science—specifically as it relates to human rights.
Deshommes cautioned that if Haiti does not train its own scientists to continue the post-quake work, the country will not be able to take advantage of the opportunity to build anew after aid organizations leave.
“It’s important to remember that scientific deficiencies and a lack of resources largely explain the extent of the damage experienced at the time of the earthquake,” Deshommes said. It is crucial that science continue play a role in supporting human rights as Haiti is rebuilt, he continued, so that the country can earn the world’s respect.
Cheryl Toksoz 27 January 2011