Communication technology serves as a rare bright spot in Haitian recovery, CCLP research trip finds

camp_haiti.jpgThe Republic of Haiti continues to struggle in its recovery efforts following the devastating January 2010 earthquake, but information and communication technologies are among the few infrastructure bright spots in the country, based on the observations from a recent fact-finding trip, in which the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP) participated.

CCLP Research Director Mark Latonero, who was selected for the week-long research project because of his work in communication technology and emergency management, found that cell phones and text messages were critical tools for sharing information about recovery efforts in the earthquake ravaged country.

“Port-au-Prince still lacks basic infrastructure like running water, electricity, or permanent housing,” explained Latonero. “But, mobile phones are up and running.”

digicel_station.jpgSolar Powered Mobile Phone Charging Station, Corail, Port-au-Prince

It may seem counter-intuitive or even technically challenging, but Haiti, a country which derives its electrical power mostly from a limited supply of generators, has a network of cell phone users. Solar powered recharging stations and pay-as-you-go mobile phone plans allow Haitians to make phone calls and send text messages with relative ease.

Digicel, the largest company operating in Haiti, is contributing needed resources not only for the country’s mobile services, but for physical reconstruction of schools and the central market,” wrote Latonero in a preliminary report of his trip findings. “Local communities, NGOs, and international relief agencies in Port au Prince are using mobile phones to alert the dispersed population about public health emergencies and protect against human trafficking and sexual gender based violence.”

The four-person research trip organized by the New York Institute of Technology was designed to study firsthand the participatory rebuilding initiatives in Haiti that utilize innovative information and communication technologies. The team met the CEO of Digicel Haiti and representatives from numerous relief organizations, including the International Organization for Migration, Architects for Humanity, and Digital Democracy, who use mobile phones to monitor gender based violence in camps and shelters in Port-au-Prince.

digicel_ceo.jpg(left to right) Tobias Holler, Maaren Boute (CEO Digicel Haiti), Cynthia Barton, Nader Vossoughian, and Mark Latonero

In addition to mobile communication, the International Organization for Migration runs the United Nations relief camps and provides the displaces persons with a newspaper service, interactive kiosks, and and dramatic, educational radio programming to spread public health and safety information.

“Our team will reflect on our experiences and look into ways to help,” Latonero explained. “One need is to provide Haitian builders with information on seismic housing construction.”

Latonero’s case study of mobile phone usage in post-earthquake Haiti is only the latest in the Center’s ongoing research into technology and social change. In August, Latonero led a research project in the Mekong Sub Region on the broader use of information technology in combating human trafficking.