08NTC: Communications in Crisis and for Uplift

Two years ago Microsoft tycoon and philanthropist Bill Gates criticized Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for his new project One Laptop Per Child, which gives free laptops to children in the developing world. Gates got initial press coverage for mocking the lack of efficiency the computers had. But, what struck me were his other comments that providing good health care is more important than providing technology to the poor and marginalized.

The second plenary of the 2008 Nonprofit Technology Conference used its time to discuss this matter. Given the location of this year's conference, it was only be appropriate to reflect on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the recovery that has been going on every since.

While technology can't fix all the problems the poor and marginalized face, it can provide efficiencies that can make life easier.

Deborah Cotton, editor-in-chief of LouisianaRebuilds.info talked about how her website has become a trusted online destination for residents affected by Hurricane Katrina. Cotton moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans in 2005, just three months shy of the storm, or the 'thing' as Katrina survivors refer to it as now. After evacuating to Houston for two months, she returned to New Orleans and began writing about residents, businesses and organizations in the process of recovery on the website.

"People can find grocery stores, medical help, legal resources and possible funding information to rebuild homes," Cotton said. "The website is designed to rebuild lives."

Cotton has made every effort to make sure the website is accessible as possible for all Katrina survivors. Case in point, because of the high illiteracy rate in New Orleans, all written content on the site doesn't go above the 7th grade reading level and there is a three-click minimum. Also, part of the website is written in Vietnamese. Cotton says that she wouldn't have been able to do all the work for the website without the collaboration of nonprofit, community groups, who are the real driving forces behind rebuilding New Orleans.

Cotton also cited the websites Katrinahelp.info and Katrinahousing.net, which were influential in helping to search for missing loved ones and housing, respectively. Think New Orleans is a another outlet that is an on-going resource to continue the story on the storm's aftermath. The organization is currently seeking funding to support a Geographic Information System (GIS) for mapping areas that still need recovery help.

Patricia Jones, executive director of the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association (NENA), is one of those collaborators. NENA's mission is to empower residents of Katrina's worst hit community to play a strategic role in rebuilding.

"Our goal is to be a means for all of us to share our stories, reconnect with each other, and put the past behind us so we can turn our attention fully to the future," Jones said. "People are coming back home and we want everyone to know that NENA is here to help."

Jones said that the Ward had almost no internet access for nearly a year after the storm, and there are still areas that don't have regular electricity. The vast majority of residents didn't even have email addresses. Nonetheless, the organization's website has been successful in providing long term recovery for those who returned to the Lower Ninth, and also for those from the Katrina "Diaspora" who want to reconnect with loved ones living all over the country. Jones also said that she loves how the community is embracing new technologies.

"This 90-year-old woman came into my office one day, and her cellular flip phone rang," Jones said. "She came to me and asked me "How do I answer this thing?"[chuckles]

Jones, being a Lower Ninth resident, was personally affected by the storm. Jones and her family just moved back into their home two weeks ago. However, she and others in her community are disappointed not only by the slow movement of federal monies flowing in to help with recovery, they are also offended that the government now wants to tax residents on federal money they haven't even received yet.

"We feel personally insulted," Jones said.

(Can you blame her?)

Below I have listed organizations/websites that are using technology to provide support for the poor and marginalized around the world who were featured or mentioned at this conference:

Kiva.org - ordinary people make microloans to entrepeneurs in the developing world

Intrahealth International - providing support for human resources to the developing world, specifically in the healthcare sector

Forum One - provides online technology support for many leading nonprofit organizations.

Gnosis Medical Project - supplies electric, medical record-keeping software for clinics in Central America.

I also shouldn't forget that text messaging/SMS are popular funtions for communications during a crisis. A great deal of Katrina evacuees used texting to find missing loved ones. Also, cell phones are very popular in the developing world. I loved the example someone told me about a Kenyan man who looked up and texted a couple of high level UN officials about a food shortage in his remote village. The food was delivered to the village almost two days later. Now that, my friends, is technology at work!

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At Monday, March 24, 2008 12:08:00 PM, Anonymous Reggie said...

Oh Lawd, Talia, thanks for reminding us that it was the community organizations like Ms Jones' who are saving NOLA, not the Bush regime.

NOLA will rise again, people.



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