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Reporter’s Notebook: Workshop seeks answers to Haiti crisis

Community members gather information with an eye toward developing long-term strategies to assist the quake-devastated nation.
Two Haitians use crowbars, shovels and their hands to clear rubble in an attempt to reach survivors at the Montana hotel that collapsed after an earthquake.
Two Haitians use crowbars, shovels and their hands to clear rubble in an attempt to reach survivors at the Montana hotel that collapsed after an earthquake.
Photo: United Nations

Guided by the principle that the first step in solving a problem is to define it, members of the MIT community held back-to-back conference calls Wednesday afternoon with experts from around the United States to better understand both the scope of the earthquake catastrophe in Haiti and how their talents and knowledge could best be put to use in relief and reconstruction efforts.

Sponsored by the MIT Media Lab and the Center for Future Civic Media, and open to the Institute community and the broader public, the discussion was part of a four-day Independent Activities Period workshop that began Tuesday and is aimed at developing innovative technologies to alleviate the crisis caused by the Jan. 12 earthquake that is estimated to have killed more than 200,000 people. The workshop is being held from 2 to 7 p.m. through Friday in E15-363.

“Our interest is that MIT is better engaged in responding to the earthquake and relief effort in a way that is more empowering for the Haitian people,” said Chris Csikszentmihalyi, director of CFCM, who is running the IAP workshop with Dale Joachim, a Media Lab visiting scientist. Although the workshop will analyze the current situation in Haiti, including what technologies might be appropriate to implement in the short term, the goal of the class is to look at the transition period following the earthquake as Haitians try to rebuild their government, infrastructure and society.

“The representation we see of Haiti is done by the international media and journalists,” Csikszentmihalyi said. “Dale’s idea is to get Haitian voices out so we understand their stake and opinion in the recovery.” How they attempt to do that remains a work in progress that will extend beyond Friday when the group has a better sense of which ideas may actually be developed into seeding projects.

Until then, workshop participants are gathering and processing as much information as possible. On Wednesday, the group of about 15 professors, graduate students and volunteers spoke to Kate Stanton, of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Innovation, about her involvement in efforts to establish a telephone number that people could text to donate money to the Red Cross; Tim Schwartz, a San Diego-based artist who helped build an online database to help Haitians locate their missing relatives; and Robert Munro, a content management specialist in San Francisco who is coordinating volunteers around the world to translate and process text messages requesting specific relief for survivors in Haiti.

The IAP group asked each source what technological assistance his or her organization needs. Stanton identified a technological need for fundraising operations that are continuous, effective and transparent. Schwartz said the challenge for his group was communicating the information gathered by the database to people back in Haiti. He also mentioned developing part of the online application that will catalog names, and possibly pictures, of the deceased.

In addition to seeking information outside MIT, the workshop is tapping the wealth of knowledge available at the Institute. Erica James, an associate professor of anthropology, whose research includes the psychosocial experience of Haitian torture survivors targeted during a coup period in the 90s, spoke to the group about her work with Haitian trauma victims, and her fears about what could go wrong in trying to shift the population away from the earthquake zone.

“The key thing is coordination of relief,” James answered when a student asked her to propose a positive model for the Haitian recovery.

The attempt to improve and sustain that coordination by a part of the MIT community is being heard and recognized. “I’m grateful for your reaching out and being a force and a clear voice in a sea of noise,” Stanton told the workshop participants.

For more information about the workshop, please visit

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