Jan 162010
 
Image representing Ushahidi as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

The collapse of traditional channels of communication in Haiti has again highlighted the role of social media and the internet in disasters.

Twitter is being used as a prime channel for communications, while sites such as Ushahidi are providing maps detailing aid and damage.

Both Google and Facebook are producing missing persons lists.

Satellite networks are also diverting resources to provide communications to aid agencies and the military.

The very first images to escape from the region after Tuesday’s earthquake came from citizens, capturing video with mobile phones.

But landlines near the epicentre have been wiped out, and mobile phone service has been at best intermittent – a fact that has already hampered rescue efforts.

The UN body Telecoms Sans Frontieres, which maintains a network of telecommunications engineers and mobile equipment worldwide, has deployed two teams in the region. The World Food Programme operates a similar service .

“When we arrive in the country, we establish a telecoms centre for the humanitarian community, for them to be able to communicate and have access to internet and phone,” said Telecoms Sans Frontiere’s Catherine Sang.

“We also operate a humanitarian calling operation for the population, so they can call their family and friends in the country or abroad,” she told BBC News.

Ms Sang said that the teams have as yet been unable to set up the network for the general populace due to security concerns.

Inmarsat, a UK-based firm that operates a network of satellites, received word from the UN just an hour after the initial quake, and has begun re-allocating satellite time to the region.

For those with satellite-enabled equipment – namely aid agencies and the military – such extra capacity is vital when traditional communication channels have been damaged or cut off altogether.

Community service

However, for the ordinary people in the worst-affected areas of Haiti, as well as loved ones desperate for information about them, the most relevant sources of information are civilians on the ground with some familiar technological tools at their disposal.

Just seconds after the earthquake, people began to send messages from Haiti through Twitter.

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