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News: Telecoms Sans Frontieres (UN) in Haiti

BBC: 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 telecom engineers and mobile equipment worldwide, has deployed two teams in the region. The World Food Programme operates a similar service...

Another web-based tool that has recently become crucial in disaster relief and information dissemination is Ushahidi. Initially the service made its name following the disputed Kenyan elections of 2007. It provides an open-source, free service which can overlay maps of affected regions with data gathered from a raft of sources.

Detailed maps can show, for instance, where aid will be delivered, where running water has been cut off or restored, or - as in the case of Haiti - where aftershocks have been reported.

However (open source) may mean not all information can be trusted... The risks of such misinformation in the aftermath of a disaster, in particular for those cases that involve divisive politics or propaganda, have already been identified in a report compiled by the UN Foundation/Vodafone Foundation technology partnership in
The founders of Ushahidi are working on a verification system that can independently assure that information coming in is corroborated and accurate.

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