Technology Helping Haiti Recover One Year After Earthquake
The day last year when the earth violently shook his country and the lives of millions of his fellow Haitians to pieces, Jude Antenor was late for school.
The master’s degree student at La Ecole Supérieure d’Infotronique d’Haìti (ESIH) was still at home when the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake caused his school to collapse, killing some of his fellow students and leaving him highly uncertain about both his own future and the future of Haiti.
A year later, his country is still in a state of crisis, according to analysis by the United Nations. More than 1 million people are homeless and without shelter, cholera and other health problems run rampant, and there are significant political tensions brewing from recent elections.
But the year has also brought remarkable collaboration, innovation and hope, as Microsoft and a record number of organizations from around the world work to help Haiti recover and to “build the country back better than it was,” said Claire Bonilla, Microsoft’s senior director of Business Continuity and Disaster Response.
Antenor’s school is being rebuilt, and he is working as an intern through the NetHope Academy, a new Microsoft-supported program that gives Haitians technology training that they can use to get IT jobs helping the organizations that are working to rebuild the country.
“I want to see a better Haiti in the future,” Antenor said. “We want people all over the world to help us improve the education in Haiti because you know that education is the key that opens all the doors. With a little bit of coaching and access to more resources . . . I think that the younger generation can have a big impact in the world.”
Rising to the Challenge
It’s been a year since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation, reducing many areas to ruins and destroying homes, hospitals, schools and government buildings in the already-poor country. An estimated 222,570 people were killed in the earthquake and in the days that followed. More than 1 million people were displaced and are still homeless or without shelter.
On the day of the earthquake, Microsoft activated its disaster response team and immediately started coordinating short-term and long-term support for Haiti, Bonilla said. The team remained involved as the needs in Haiti evolved from emergency response to rebuilding.
“This has been heralded as probably the most devastating event of the century,” Bonilla said. “We knew it would take a global community of international players to respond in a cohesive and coordinated fashion.”
One of the first orders of business was to partner with NetHope, a nonprofit organization specializing in solving technology problems, to build a wireless “Internet backbone” that the government, intergovernmental agencies (such as the United Nations), and nongovernmental agencies could use to coordinate disaster relief.
“Though some people estimate the earthquake set the country back 70 years, within weeks Haiti had a more robust IT infrastructure than the country had ever seen,” Bonilla said.
In the first two months after the earthquake, Microsoft helped launch OneResponse, a website for interagency collaboration; deployed cloud-computing solutions for Haiti’s government and for organizations working in the country; had Bing and MSN set up pages where people could donate to Haiti; and had the Microsoft Translator team add Haitian Creole to the translator’s languages so that it could be used by aid workers.
Microsoft employees found unique ways to apply their expertise and to collaborate inside and outside the company to help rebuild Haiti “and hopefully catapult it into a higher level of maturity as a society by infusing it with technology and the benefits it can provide,” Bonilla said.
When Bonilla and other members of the disaster relief team visited Haiti in May to perform a technology assessment, roads to outlying villages had just been cleared to allow nonprofits to begin setting up formal satellite help centers in heavily devastated areas five months later.
At the same time, Bonilla—a veteran disaster responder—was also impressed by the level of innovation she found in Haiti. In one of the camps she visited, there was just one latrine for 50,000 residents, creating huge health and sanitation issues. But one small organization taught Haitians how use the sun’s heat and local materials to turn the sewage into compost that they could use to grow food for the camp.
The disaster presented a host of urgent logistical challenges ranging from search and rescue, aid distribution, communication, health care and sanitation. In the early days after the earthquake, aid and support came flooding into Haiti, Bonilla said.
“The level of devastation was massive,” Bonilla said. “The level of sheer passion and resilience that came out of all of this was incredibly heartening. Out of the wake of destruction comes amazing opportunities and innovation.”
‘Building Back Better’
When Microsoft workers arrived to introduce a computer and other technologies to a classroom in Haiti, they found a teacher using one textbook to teach more than 30 children.
“There are about 1.5 million people homeless, and a lot of them are children. What’s kind of remarkable is that these 30 kids were coming from somewhere with no running water, no power, and probably after sleeping under a canvas roof. Yet, somehow they showed up dressed in clean school uniforms, on time, and ready to learn,” said Scott Edwards, senior director of Strategic Programs and Partnerships for Microsoft.
Only about 50 percent of children in Haiti attend school, and the literacy rate was the worst in the western hemisphere even before the earthquake, Edwards said. When you are rebuilding education, he noted, helping teachers use technology is crucial, not only to engage students and to keep them coming to school, but also to help prepare students for the twenty-first century.
Through Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Program, one of the technologies Microsoft has introduced is Mouse Mischief, a free add-in to Microsoft PowerPoint that allows an entire classroom of students to interact with their teacher using a single computer, Edwards said. Each student has his or her own mouse, allowing students to respond to multiple choice questions or draw on a shared screen.
“Most schools in Haiti not only are separated by a digital divide, but often don’t even have basic resources such as current textbooks,” he said. “Microsoft believes that providing affordable, accessible access to technology resources can help bridge that gap.”
At the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in September, Microsoft and other partners made a two-year commitment to deploy computer labs in 40 “lighthouse” schools in Haiti to serve 24,000 students, Edwards said. The labs will be powered by Windows MultiPoint Server, a new Windows operating system that can allow the building of an entire school lab at a fraction of the cost with up to an 80 percent reduction in power consumption compared to a standard lab.
In addition, Microsoft partnered with NetHope to help fund and resource the NetHope Academy Program to train Haitians and to create hands-on internships for them as they use their IT skills to support humanitarian organizations doing work in Haiti. Hundreds applied for the program’s first 36 spots, and on the first day of NetHope Academy, all 36 students—including Jude Antenor—were there 30 minutes early, excited and ready to go—many of them having walked several miles to attend.
“Our hope is to take people like Jude and help them become the people running local Internet service providers and providing IT expertise to help build Haiti back better,” Edwards said. “Microsoft will play multiple roles. The first thing needed was disaster response. Now we’re moving into recovery and rebuild mode and to foster local innovation.”
Learning from Disaster
Bonilla said there are several key things Microsoft learned during the Haiti response. First was that public and private sector collaboration is at the heart of preparedness, she said.
“While we can come together at the time, having relationships in advance allowed us to speak directly with the right people at the right time,” Bonilla said. When disaster strikes, having relationships already in place means potential solutions are on the table even faster, she said.
The second lesson Microsoft learned from its Haiti response revolves around the power of the cloud, she said.
“As you can imagine, when there’s a disaster, the infrastructure of the affected area is wiped out—water, power, Internet,” Bonilla said. “The ability to host a portal from a safe, unimpacted location and to connect into secure collaboration portals and start the flow of information can help millions during an incident.”
Bonilla said the team has been inspired to develop and innovate new ways of communicating using cloud computing after spending time in Haiti, where most people don’t have computers but do have mobile phones.
Microsoft will continue its work in Haiti indefinitely, she said.
“I think Microsoft will always have an enduring presence in Haiti. It will evolve over time along with the needs of the country,” Bonilla said. “And Haiti is just one example of where Microsoft has long-term investments to show commitment. There’s a broad list of underdeveloped and developing countries that this company continues to invest in with the goal of raising the standard of living of millions of people around the world by using our software and services to connect individuals and organizations to relevant information and tools—be it educational or operational.”
Antenor, too, would like to invest in the future of Haiti.
“I want to take what I’ve learned and use it to create jobs—to create my own business and to give jobs to Haitian people and to involve the future of the younger [generation] of this country in that education, too,” he said.