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Former Research Fellows Share Pride in NGO Recognition

February 14, 2012

When a magnitude seven earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, The Fletcher School was on winter break. But as the extent of the damage started to become evident to the international community in the days following the disaster, a group of students rapidly mobilized to help the humanitarian response with an innovative and far-reaching project.

Last month, almost exactly two years later, The Global Journal published a ranking of the world’s 100 best NGOs, placing Ushahidi, an organization started in Kenya in 2008, in the tenth spot. While thousands of miles separate Nairobi from Medford, CIERP and the broader Fletcher community were particularly pleased to hear about the NGO’s recognition, as during those traumatic weeks of early 2010, a connection was forged that would contribute greatly to the relief efforts.

Patrick Meier, former CIERP Research Fellow and a PhD student at the time of the earthquake, had gained some experience in emergency information mapping in the years leading to 2010, first through his work with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and later as Director of Crisis Mapping and Partnerships for Ushahidi, a position he still holds today. When disaster struck, he felt compelled to help out and had an idea of how to do so.

Using his experience with crisis mapping at Ushahidi, he began setting up a system where critical data on needs, locations and developments could be transformed into an interactive, dynamic map accessible to the entire global community.

“It was an emotional reaction more than a strategic one,” explains Meier. A small group of Fletcher students and professors were in Haiti as part of a research project when the earthquake struck, making the tragedy all that more personal for him and the Fletcher community as a whole.

He initially recruited fellow Fletcher students to help out, and soon the team expanded to include undergraduates at Tufts University, community-members and other contacts around the world.

“All of a sudden, our project was being used by crisis responders on the ground – it became bigger than life.”

One of the students who answered Meier’s call for action was Anna Schulz, who was also a CIERP Research Fellow while at Fletcher. Right away, she found a critical way to contribute. The team was receiving a mountain of information via sms, email and social media channels, but most of it was lacking GPS coordinates, making the task of placing the data on a map more complicated. Schulz developed a system to transform any kind of indication received, such as neighborhoods and landmarks, into actual GPS coordinates.

“Word began spreading about this incredible capability,” remembers Meier, and the team started getting requests from search and rescue teams in Port-au-Prince, the World Food Program and other responders asking for coordinates for specific areas of interest. Soon, this growing reputation also proved very handy.

Schulz was handling numerous heavy, high-resolution files to carry out her GPS coordinates project, and her old laptop began repeatedly crashing. The technological impediment was hindering her efforts, and, after spreading the word about the issue to a series of personal contacts, word got to the Florida-based U.S. Southern Command, which was taking the lead in humanitarian relief efforts for the Department of Defense. Soon after, five high-powered iMacs arrived to Fletcher, courtesy of the Pentagon, so that Schulz and her other volunteers could continue doing their valuable geolocation work.

This impressive student-led project provided invaluable help to the recovery efforts following the devastating earthquake. It also forged a strong bond between Ushahidi and Fletcher, making CIERP and the broader community particularly proud about Ushahidi’s recognition as one of the ten best NGOs in the world.

-Story by Elia Boggia, MALD candidate F13