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Two MIT classes focus on helping Haiti

Students and teachers lend mind and hand to the rebuilding

In response to the earthquake in Haiti, MIT Media Lab students have developed a service that helps communities rebuild after a crisis by indexing the skills of local residents so that NGOs like the American Red Cross and Partners In Health can quickly find and employ them.

Since January, Greg Elliott and Aaron Zinman have been developing Konbit, a free interactive communication platform that allows Haitians, their diaspora and the international community to report their skills by phone, text message or web. In anticipation of long-term rebuilding efforts, the goal of Konbit is to index everyday skills, such as language or construction skills, that aren’t currently being advertised or tracked by sites like Craigslist or Monster.

Composed of several hardware and software systems, Konbit allows people from multiple countries to work together to help disaster victims find employment and rebuild their economy. It includes software for web, text, phone and translation services, as well as servers located in Cambridge and custom phone hardware to be installed in Haiti.

Konbit is language- and medium-neutral, meaning that voice and text messages can be translated through the Konbit phone, text or web interface. The voice component is crucial to Konbit because more than 60 percent of the Haitian population is illiterate, according to UNICEF.

Messages in native Creole will be translated by volunteer Haitians and then transcribed into the database so that NGOs can search for specific skills in real-time and by location.

In addition to aiding reconstruction, another goal of Konbit is to prevent the outsourcing of labor. When aid organizations bring non-Haitians into Haiti for relief and reconstruction work, this prevents Haitians from receiving training and experience that could be valuable once the relief teams have left. It also hurts the Haitian economy, which had a 70 percent unemployment rate before the earthquake, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Zinman and Elliott hope to launch a prototype of the Konbit platform in early March. While the phone and web interfaces are essentially working, Zinman and Elliott are trying to get the major telecommunications companies in Haiti to deploy the service as soon as possible.

Konbit got its start in the four-day Independent Activities Period workshop sponsored by the Media Lab and the Center for Future Civic Media that was aimed at developing innovative technologies to alleviate the crisis caused by the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti.

Dale Joachim, a Media Lab visiting scientist who helped run that workshop, is now teaching “New Media Projects for Haiti” with Barry Vercoe, professor of media arts and sciences in the Media Lab. The project-oriented class will explore how communications technology can help rebuilding efforts. The class has about 30 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled, as well as a handful of participants who are attending the lectures.

The first half of the class includes lectures on topics about Haitian society, such as economics, education and language, that will help student groups choose a societal problem and devise solutions. The class will travel to Haiti during the last week of April to field test and document its solutions. Each project will have its own evaluation plan that will be discussed when the class returns to MIT.

Crisis, management

The Sloan School of Management is also offering a class directly involved in Haitian relief efforts. Several students from that class, “Applications of System Dynamics: Global Challenges,” are helping the U.S. military quickly analyze data for humanitarian-relief needs.

Taught by Sloan senior lecturer Anjali Sastry, the project developed after Marc Zissman, assistant head of the Communications and Information Technology Division at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, asked for help assessing the current state of health, food, shelter and water in Haiti. Zissman is helping the U.S. military Joint Task Force in Haiti coordinate a group that will survey 288 displacement camps and neighborhoods in the country to determine the needs and supplies for the overall humanitarian effort.

On a weekly basis, Sastry’s students will analyze up-to-the-minute data collected in Haiti over the next one to four months. The results are urgently needed for planning and decision-making and will be reported to the military, NGOs and the U.N. In addition to the rapid data analysis, the students will produce a set of white papers to help frame the results within the larger picture of long-term sustainability in Haiti, and how the humanitarian efforts might play out over time.

“This is really about putting MIT skills to the test,” Sastry said, urging the various relief and reconstruction projects within the MIT community to communicate and partner with one another so there can be a better understanding of the needs and opportunities in Haiti.

That line of thinking will guide the March 8 retreat by the MIT/Haiti Response Advisory Group. Hosted by Vice Chancellor and Dean for Graduate Education Steve Lerman, the goal of the retreat is to identify viable MIT-led projects that could meet Haiti’s needs.

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