Haitians live in a densely populated country (10 million people on an island smaller than Maryland). 80 percent of them live on less than 1.25 a day. And that&#x2019;s adjusted for purchasing power -- so that&#x2019;s what 1.25 would buy you in the US in 2005. Before the earthquake, the unemployment rate in Haiti was 70 percent. This is likely the highest unemployment in the Western Hemisphere. But interestingly, more than 50 percent of Haitians are literate in French, and a growing number of young people, thanks to the strong Haitian diaspora in the US and the power of social networks, speak English and have good communication skills. The differential between this increased human capacity and a lack of decent jobs is tragic. Let me take a minute and walk you through some of the economic factors that made the recent earthquake so devastating.
With so few jobs available, most Haitians get by through subsistence agriculture. Unfortunately, over the last two centuries, much of Haiti&#x2019;s land has been ruined. People are stuck in a vicious circle: they sow poor quality traditional seeds, which are often food grains purchased on the local markets, which have low crop yields. The lack of revenue resulting from these current farming methods then leads people to seek other ways to extract an income from the land. Trees are one of those resources -- traditional tree crops produce items such as charcoal, post-wood, planks and low quality fruits. But with a country so densely populated, when everyone cuts down a tree, you get this:
Anyone who&#x2019;s been to Haiti is shocked by how few trees there are compared to the Dominican Republic, which sits on the other half of the island. With farming cash crops out of the picture, Haitians turn to other types of work.
This is a common sight: instead of working a part-time job that builds his skills, this boy sells mirrors by the side of the road to tourists. He makes a few cents on each one, and is forced to lug a huge bundle of these things around all day. This needn&#x2019;t be the case. If 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, and 50 percent are literate, that leaves 30 percent that could stand to benefit from alternative livelihoods that tap their skills as knowledge workers.
Let me pause for a minute here and tell you about samasource.
We&#x2019;re a San Francisco nonprofit founded on the premise that good work is the best answer to poverty. Luckily, we live in a time where more and more work is done digitally, by a distributed group of people connected via fiber optic cable. In 2005, Thomas Friedman made this point in his book The World is Flat. Since then, outsourcing has grown to an over $200 billion dollar industry and moved into every segment of business operations, from the digitization of medical records to financial consulting for investment banks.
But here&#x2019;s where the story gets more nuanced. Work has not only gone digital, it has become more and more task-based. Platforms like Amazon&#x2019;s Mechanical Turk, and our business partner CrowdFlower, take big projects and break them into little pieces, or microwork, that can be completed by anyone, anywhere who is connected to a browser. Microwork is real work for real companies, and can involve a range of commonly outsourced business needs, from scraping data from websites for lead generation, to moderating photo or video content.
I believe that microwork will be the next big opportunity for the world&#x2019;s poor, particularly as more and more of them get online.
One thing that surprised me in learning about Haiti is that the one type of infrastructure that wasn&#x2019;t devastated by the quake was the country&#x2019;s telecommunications networks. This is a photo taken on a drive up to a rural area -- you can see that the cell towers fared pretty well.
This is a photo of Port-au-Prince a day after the quake.
amidst all of the awful devastation....
...there was hope in the tens of cybercafes like this one
and in the fact that the nation&#x2019;s communications infrastructure was alive and well. This is a line outside Digicel, the Tmobile of Haiti, a few weeks after the quake.
This was tremendously exciting for Samasource.
Believe it or not, twenty minutes before the earthquake, we had emailed an organization called 1,000 Jobs, in Mirebalais, Haiti to accept them into our work program. 1,000 Jobs is a program of Dr. Paul Farmer&#x2019;s organization, Partners in Health.
Given the crisis, we thought they&#x2019;d decline our offer. But a day after Port-au-Prince was leveled, we got a call from their director telling us that job creation is more important now than ever for the long-term rebuilding of Haiti. Tens of thousands of people have lost their homes and livelihoods and are flooding neighboring towns. We need to do a lot more than giving men fish; we need to give them the skills to catch their own.
Luckily, we got a call from Frontline SMS and Ushahidi asking us if we could help them meet a huge need for Haitian Creole speakers. In the wake of the crisis, a free phone number, 4636, was established to allow people on the ground to text their requests for medical care, food, water, and shelter from any cell phone and receive aid.
This system functions like a smart 911 service, and to give you an idea of how effective it is, one woman actually texted as she went into labor, and within 10 minutes had an aid worker by her side delivering her baby.
How Mission 4636-- a consortium of nonprofits, governmental organizations, and companies-- collaborated after the Haitian earthquake to provide emergency SMS translation to tens of thousands of people.
Here&#x2019;s a feed from the early days of the project showing the volume of texts coming in from different parts of the country. What was needed was an immediate solution to classify these texts in real time.
So Samasource partnered with the Mission 4636 team to plug a team of workers at 1,000 Jobs into a translation engine powered by one of our partners. This is the interface our workers see from Haiti.
You can see a text message in Kreyol at the top, and instructions for the worker to translate and geotag it underneath.
We were lucky enough to receive funding from the state department to train the workers in our center and pay them to run these translations for the next six months, after which time we hope to receive other contracts from customers needing French and English translation and data services.
These are some photos from our training a few weeks back, which took place on a Sunday evening after these young people had waited all day to receive us.
Here&#x2019;s our local team leader on the project,
and here&#x2019;s me trying to teach people about CrowdFlower while the netbooks are being set up. At one point the power went out, and we were really touched to see that that didn&#x2019;t phase anyone -- they all calmly took out their cell phones and read by the light of those LCD screens.
What&#x2019;s so exciting about this project is that rather than paying an expatriate or an aid worker to do these translations, we are paying Haitians. And through our partnership with CrowdFlower, we plan to send a lot more work to Haiti after the SMS project dies down. This is the power of technology to fight poverty, both in real time, and in the long term.
I believe this project could scale quickly in other countries. Why not have an SMS-based alternative to 911 that provides employment to local people from rural communities while also addressing a critical need? The US State Department will get a total of $16.4 billion dollars in appropriations over the course of 2010. Let&#x2019;s make sure some of that goes towards projects like these.
Google Mission4636 16 Mar2010 Leila
Haiti’s population: 10M
% who can read and write % who live in poverty
53% 20% 80%
Person on the ground
Mission 4636 In Haiti Info
Emergency Response to the Outside Haiti Action
SMS Info by
phase 2: paid workers ICRC
platform SMS with Public
+ worker mobile # Aid