PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Days after the Jan. 12 earthquake, a group of Haitians set up a small tent camp in an open field not far from the U.S. Embassy. In theory, this small community was well-situated to receive aid: It was in spitting distance of a helicopter landing zone. And right nearby was the World Food Program’s consolidated warehouse, where relief agencies store all their goods shipped from the Dominican Republic.
Being close to the nerve center of this massive relief operation, however, was no guarantee of aid. Gene Kunze, a program officer for the U.S. charity Mercy Corps, came upon the camp quite by chance, while scanning a digital map of earthquake relief operations. After noting the grid coordinates, Mercy Corps went out to do an assessment.
“There are so many isolated pockets of people,” he said. “Sure enough, no one [from the aid community] was there.”
Delivering aid to earthquake-hit Port-au-Prince is, simply put, a logistical nightmare. Unlike tsunami relief in 2004, when aid workers were able to map out the gaps in their operations between villages and towns, Haitians have crowded into small, often isolated, camps throughout this sprawling city: a few families living under lean-to behind a wall, hundreds of people may be camping in an empty lot.
With mounting frustration over the distribution of aid, it has become more important than ever for aid and relief groups to coordinate their efforts: to avoid duplication of effort, and to make sure that help reaches some of Haiti’s more isolated communities.
“The U.N. definitely has geospatial information front and center,” said Kunze. “And they also have much better map services in general than you would have seen not long ago.”
Mercy Corps is using Google Earth to find underserved camps for cash-for-work programs. Kunze flipped open his laptop to show a satellite map of Port-au-Prince: Red stars showed cash-for-work sites, where the group is paying people to help clean up trash and debris. The idea is not just to use this information for Mercy Corps operations, but to share it with the rest of the aid community.
Data is fed to Map Action, located in the U.N. operations center here. As more information comes in, a better picture emerges of what needs to be done in a certain area. It’s supposed to help both larger nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Mercy Corps as well as smaller groups that are arriving here every day.
Of course, there’s a catch: The system is voluntary. The U.N. is pressing NGOs to provide GPS coordinates about their activities, no real enforcement mechanism. Theoretically, the UN requires this basic information from any group that uses its services, including logistics and warehousing, but it is self-policing.
The U.S. government has a more robust tool for enforcing this kind of information-sharing mechanism: Cash. According to aid workers who have attended recent USAID planning meetings, the U.S. government has made it clear that organizations not fully compliant with U.N. coordination (in NGO-speak, the “cluster mechanism”) should not expect to see a penny of U.S. government money.
Still, it’s a cumbersome mechanism. Participants in the system can’t instantaneously plug in grid coordinates or upload a .gpx file. Instead, they have to fill out an Excel spreadsheet, cutting and pasting grid coordinates.
This kind of geotagging also has application for civil affairs-type work in war zones. In Afghanistan, for instance, Mercy Corps uses similar tools to track cash-for-work projects in more dangerous parts of the country. Local workers can take photos and provide GPS coordinates to prove that a project has been completed.
Still, despite the coordination, some Haitians think aid is not getting here quickly enough. On a drive through Port-au-Prince’s devastated Fort National area, pictured here, a young man flagged down our truck. With the windows down, the stench was appalling. Nearly all the concrete-and-masonry houses were collapsed, and bodies apparently were still in the rubble.
A young man, who gave his name as Charlie Gabriel, extended a hand, and asked me where I was from. “The American came here, and promised food,” he replied. “We got nothing.”
What American, I asked. “He was a journalist, from Brooklyn.”