Keynote: Kurt Jean-Charles of Solutions

This is a liveblog post of the keynote speech at the International Conference on Crisis Mapping.

Kurt Jean-Charles is the founder of Solutions, a tech company based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, founded in 2001.  Jean-Charles was instrumental in linking together groups and setting up crisis response models after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Jean-Charles begins by thanking everyone who reacted promptly after the earthquake in Haiti, noting that it was unprecedented.  “I’m here to present to you what our perspective is from what we’ve been doing in Haiti,” he states.  “I want to share with you my experience from January 12, from someone who lives in Haiti and was there and had to deal with this trauma firsthand.”  He also notes that he will share the Noula platform and its impact.

Jean-Charles explains that when the earthquake happened, he at first felt that it was the worst thing he’d ever experienced, until he walked outside and realized how bad it really was.  When he walked outside, he explains, he saw only ash, then saw people rising from the ash.  His first reaction was to run, to find out what happened to his family and neighborhood.  “It was the most horrible 20 minutes I’ve spent in my life,” he says, “I can still see in my memory the bodies, the unbelievable damage.”

“Fortunately, I was very relieved to find that my daughter was alive, but in just ten minutes I realized that I had to do something to help other people,” states Jean-Charles, explaining that he simply started trying to help other people, grabbing a hammer, and trying to free people.  He says that he was lucky enough to be able to save one child.

“After that, we slept in the office for at least four weeks,” remarks Jean-Charles.  He explained that they gathered a team to figure out what they could do.  He says they had no medical team, and no real tools, so they needed to figure out how they could be most effective.  “This is where we started listening to what was happening around us,” he says.

The first initiative, he says, was when an organization came to him asking them to help find nurses, doctors, and find where people are.  The organization wanted to develop an assessment to communicate with others.  “This is where we started to realize how important communication issues would be in such an event,” Jean-Charles explains, “We started to understand why it was important to identify actors and discover how they could communicate most effectively.”

“Many of the things we relied on before the earthquake were unavailable,” explains Jean-Charles, noting how that made it difficult to manage their project.  Telecommunications were down, a challenge for building a platform.

“We started by gathering people after funerals,” says Jean-Charles, “Many of our team members were mourning, and we felt powerless, but we knew we had something to do.”  They had low access to resources, including electricity and food, and had no idea how things would evolve.  They wanted to build something but had no access to crisis management experts.

They decided to build a crisis management platform, designed to support decision-making by providing a consistent and multi-channel collaborative platform.  They developed Noula, which in Creole means “we are alive.”  The platform allowed for:

  • crisis mapping
  • needs mapping
  • resources mapping
  • risk mapping
  • action and response mapping

The team realized that after the earthquake, there was vast amounts of information floating around on radio programs, but none of it was structured.  The Noula project sought to provide a structured channel for communications between all actors.  At first, they developed a simple paper form to retrieve information that could then be analyzed and added to the map.

Their second target was to build an accountable model with behavioral changes based on open access to information as a fundamental right and on a structured expression channel for the local population.  Although Solutions was a small software company with little leverage to use this tool to pressure public authorities or humanitarian groups, they felt that a crowdsourcing model could help bring the voices of the public to those actors, in an effort to influence them.

They also aimed to showcase the relevance, sense of responsibility, and vision of indigenous resources.  “To improve preparedness, it’s important to reinforce local communities.  To do this, you need to empower them, and give them a voice,” explains Jean-Charles.

The team began work on the platform only one week after the earthquake.  Along with the application, they also launched a call center as a point of entry for crowdsourced information.

“All of this is based on the use of technology, but it’s also based on the use of very basic tools,” explains Jean-Charles.  Although the Noula platform is online, they collect information offline, using traditional methods like paper forms and telephone calls, adjusting to the local population.

Jean-Charles explains that his is a very simple approach: taking messages from the crowd and placing them in a system where they can provide tactical knowledge and actionable data points.

Concluding his talk, Jean-Charles notes that the Noula team has registered 13,000 messages and even more phone calls, the latter without any real publicity. They’ve noted community adoption of their platform, and attribute that to their open ears to community needs.  He also notes that the platform has been adopted by Haiti’s state university, and that it is gaining more and more interest from the international community.  He thanks in particular the Ushahidi team for giving Noula such incredible exposure.

Jean-Charles also notes the creation of the Noula Foundation, a civil society association tasked with the goal of ensuring continued operation of the tool, as well as transparency and accountability.

“We are only at the beginning of this experience — the most important thing is to ensure that we have a platform that will showcase the expression of the communities and that will improve their awareness of their rights and responsibilities and the actions that are taken to address the situation they are facing on an everyday basis.”

Jean-Charles ends with the following statement:

Human poverty is more than income poverty.  It is the denial of choices and opportunities for living a tolerable life.  We think that information can be very critical in giving people more opportunity and more access to networks that are vital for them to survive.  This is the philosophy behind this tool.  This is how we can use information to reinforce people’s awareness of their rights and responsibilities and create a communication platform based on shared values and based on transparency.

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