How crowdsourcing helped Haiti's relief efforts

Lukas Biewald on CrowdFlower's emergency shift from microtasks to Kreyol translations

Tech-minded volunteers quickly pitched in with a variety of communication and data services in the days following the Haiti earthquake. One company — crowdsourcing platform CrowdFlower — repurposed its service as a text-message translation tool to aid Mission 4636. CrowdFlower founder and CEO Lukas Biewald shares his story in this guest post.

Before January 12, I knew little to nothing about Haiti or the role of crowdsourcing in disaster relief. My company, CrowdFlower, offers a crowdsourced labor platform to clients who are mostly Silicon Valley tech companies. The January earthquakes in Haiti ignited a completely new type of emergency response that involved the contributions of individuals, companies, NGOs, and staffed by thousands of volunteers around the world. On a more personal level, it led to the discovery of a very surprising application of our product.

Despite the massive devastation of buildings in Port-au-Prince, most of Haiti’s cell tower infrastructure remained intact. Within 48 hours of the earthquake, Josh Nesbit of FrontlineSMS:Medic and Katie Stanton of the U.S. State Department convinced DigiCel, the largest telco in Haiti, to set up a short code — “4636” — that any individual could text for free to get help. Robert Munro of Energy for Opportunity and Brian Herbert set up a workflow where Kreyol-speaking volunteers could translate and classify the messages for aid workers to send relief.

Once the system was working, InSTEDD (in collaboration with Thompson Reuters) worked on the ground to broadcast the existence of the “4636” short code to as many Haitians as possible using radio and other means. Through word of mouth, the number of volunteer translators grew throughout the Haitian diaspora.

It was immediately clear that people were using this system to send absolutely urgent and heartbreaking messages. Here’s a few examples:

“I am in the town of Jeremie in the Grand’Anse Department. My boyfriend died, I’m 8 months pregnant, I don’t have any money. Whatever you can do for me will be a deliverance” (More info here.)

“My name is J. W. my brother is working in Unicef and I live in Carfour 11 Alentyerye I have 2 people that is still alive under the building still ! Send Help!” (More info here.)

As the volume of urgent messages grew, there became a growing need for a more robust workflow platform. At CrowdFlower we specialize in the creation and management of high volumes of microtasks completed by hundreds of thousands of online workers. The Haitian SMS translation and classification work, as well as the coordination of contributions by a large number of volunteers around the world, was a natural fit for our system. We began pulling in feeds of SMS messages, facilitating their translation and posting feeds of translated messages.

Before the first earthquake, Samasource (a nonprofit specializing in socially responsible outsourcing) had just set up a work center in Haiti. This Samasource service partner assumed a large amount of the earthquake relief responsibilities, providing not just labor for the emergency message routing but also creating badly-needed jobs on the ground. At peak volume in one hour we processed over 5,000 SMS messages.

Parts of the feed of emergency SMS messages — and maps generated by Ushahidi — are now used by a growing number of organizations, including the Red Cross, Plan International, charity:water, U.S. State Department, International Medical Corps, AIDG, USAID, FEMA, U.S. Coast Guard Task Force, World Food Program, SOUTHCOM, OFDA and UNDP.

Craig Clark of the Marine Corps commented on the text message project:

“I wish I had time to document to you every example, but there are too many and our operation is moving too fast … I say with confidence that there are 100s of these kinds of [success] stories. The Marine Corps is using your project every second of the day to get aid and assistance to the people that need it most.”

A few weeks after the first earthquake, I was invited to Haiti immediately on the heels of a sales trip to Europe. The contrast between these two trips was striking. Driving through Port-au-Prince and seeing so many collapsed buildings gave me a sobering understanding of how 200,000 people died in this crisis. Meeting with survivors of the quake was a testament to their motivation to rebuild their country.

The massive number of volunteers and the workforce quickly brought online by Samasource means that there’s very low latency when someone sends an emergency message. For messages like “Non mwen se luÇaint luÇoit madanm mwen ansent li rive lè poul akouche nou nan dèlma 31 ri maryen n 21 nan lakou legliz apostolik anfas site jeremi, mpa” (“condition bloody about. undergoing children delivery corner of delmas 31 and rue marine”) it is crucial not just to be fast, but to have local knowledge to get the exact longitude and latitude from an ambiguous 140 character message as well as an accurate classification so that the right aid agency can be deployed. In this case there was a happy ending, USGS responded “just got emergency SMS, child delivery, USCG are acting, and, the GPS coordinates of the location we got from someone of your team were 100% accurate!”

The advantages of a flexible crowdsourcing workflow to managing disaster relief are huge. Businesses like crowdsourced work because they don’t have to plan unknown work capacity in advance, and managing a crisis is an extreme version of this problem. There would be no practical way to have thousands of trained Kreyol speakers ready to handle emergency text messages, but through viral channels and a microtask framework it was possible to have thousands of people around the world doing mission-critical work within days.

When you run a company, you worry constantly about whether or not your product is something that your customers really want, whether or not your product is a necessary solution, whether or not it is reliable, etc. It was clear to me through Mission 4636 that our product was capable of not merely changing lives, but of saving them. As saddening as it is to reflect on the devastation and mortality caused by the Haiti earthquakes, the collaborative impact of Mission 4636 is truly inspirational. I hope it will become the model for future emergency relief efforts.

You can learn more at and via the following video:

Mission 4636 from CrowdFlower on Vimeo.