Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Blogging without Borders (Trivia Question)

As a result of the Haiti earthquake response I've found some interesting groups that seem to follow in the path of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). Today I'm testing out a new feature on this page by asking you the following trivia question below - I'll do my usual type of post later on today. Go ahead and see if you can guess the right answer (without using Google...)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Never Settle for an Email

We live and work in a world today that is increasingly reliant on a wide assortment of communication tools to talk to each other. We can email someone, chat with them on Skype/Messenger/Gmail Chat/etc., Tweet someone, send a text message, or call them on a variety of devices. Some people even use a more primitive form of communication known as a face-to-face conversation. All of these communication methods present opportunities to catch someone at the right time or miss them completely in the shuffle of dealing with all of the avenues I've just mentioned. The question is which one do you use if you need to get something done quickly.

It's fairly easy to default to email as Option #1. You have a record that you actually talked to someone, you can get notification that it was received by the other party, you don't have to worry about a character limit and you can access it on a number of devices. What you lose with emails is personality and tone (despite the fact that you can throw in a variety of colorful language and exclamation points when you want to.)

Emails aren't always the best option though. In some cases you are at a disadvantage if you get someone's email address and expect to get an answer back to you in minutes or hours. That's why my motto is Never Settle for an Email (ok, if I had a motto this would be it.) Let me give you a recent example.

My organization is expecting some large shipments of shelter kits to arrive in Haiti next week to go to families in need of solutions beyond bedsheets and trees that would not last through a Wisconsin winter. We have limited warehouse space in Port-au-Prince and we've decided that it would be ideal to work through other NGOs on distribution since its not our core compentency. Regardless of who distributes them they are needed by Haitians ASAP. Our goal was to secure agreements to distribute our kits in a number of communities in a way that would allow us to minimize the need for our warehouse space in the short-term.

After doing some assessment in one community we found a few groups that we thought could accomplish this task last Friday. I talked to one international organization that same day in person and sent a follow up email over the weekend with more details. I called a second organization and after not getting through to their field contact I sent an email with the information I wanted to share with them.  I attempted to follow up with both groups on Monday but still did not reach the second group by Wednesday. Luckily I received an email from our department head that mentioned that some senior folks from our end had talked to senior folks from the organization that had not gotten back to me and made a tentative agreement for us to work together. I now had my new route of access.

I sent a second email to this organization on Wednesday and dropped some of the names mentioned in the email I received earlier. This got me a reply back that night with 2 contact emails and phone numbers and one of those people called me back the following morning.

Getting back to my point - the lesson here is one email address is not enough if its really important and needs a reaction quickly. There are caveats to this since you have to judge how far you can go depending on your previous knowledge of the recipient and knowing when to push hard and when to ease up. I know my example involved other emails (and phone is better than that if you can't get a face-to-face) but again one email is not enough.

Photo courtesy of Mark Manalaysay via Stockvault.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Haiti Earthquake Slideshow

I wanted to take a moment this morning to share something that was shown to me yesterday since it is very good work in my opinion dealing with the one month anniversary of the Jan 12 earthquake in Haiti. A colleague of mine (Ezra Millstein) spent some time taking these shots and providing some good narration in the background.

So, without further ado here's a presentation from a real pro: Haiti Earthquake Slideshow. It's a little less than 5 minutes long.

Ezra has some really good shots from his other work around the world that might interest you on his website ( I'm a bit jealous at how much more sophisticated it is over my little Blogger site here but its to be expected - he's been at this for a good little while. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Going A Bit Beyond Google Maps

Some of us like to have things explained to us verbally while others like to glean new information in print or images. We can debate over how many prefer one method over another but to save time we'll start from that point. I like to think I can go both ways but I must say I have a special fondness for the right visual spin on a topic.

I grew up having 2 parents that worked in graphic design. This did not make me an artist or even someone with one iota of visual talent. What it did do is give me an appreciation for good design and bad design. In college this appreciation evolved to the point that I had a good deal of interest in GIS and maps (not the Calvin and Hobbes kind but ones that had a practical application.) I've always wanted to do a good bit of GIS and map work but I haven't really had a chance to dabble in it (outside of a upper-level elective in college) until recently when I came down a few weeks ago to work in Haiti.

I know there are some purists out there that would say that Google Earth isn't a robust GIS tool but its pretty darn good enough for me. I'm still learning how to use it but I thought I'd share some interesting maps I've recently come across just to showcase an interest of mine:

OpenStreetMap Haiti (currently using this on our GPS in the field)
UNOSAT Map of Comprehensive Building Damage Assessment for Carrefour (low-res version but will still take a little while to open)

Last but not least the following site offers up some interesting maps in general: Strange Maps.

Photo courtesy of Emile Ogez via Flickr.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Climbing Mountains

I’ve noticed that I always end up with issues if I’m away from home for awhile. Today’s issues are an upset stomach from a great cookout last night at the local project management team’s place here in Montagne Noire and a persistent leak from my bathroom’s toilet which has slowly crept in other people’s sleeping areas. In essence my living situation has started to evolve into The Real World: Haiti. I should have been wary of choosing the room with the great view.

We spent a good deal of time on Monday going over the growth and structure of the new organization chart for the local program and what it means for the current staff and future staff that may come from around the world as well as from Haiti. From my point of view there was nothing shocking or surprising with the new model – I was just surprised to see my name on it. I think the local staff here are still a bit unsure on how this will all play out (which I totally understand) but I hope that over time the outsiders will be eased out and their responsibilities will be passed on to Haitians currently living here or abroad so that they have a full opportunity to be a part of the efforts to rebuild their country. Hopefully this rebuilding will not be like others but it will be a steep climb for all of us. As for me I believe that my role here is on an interim basis but I hope to get some clarity on it soon. I joked with one person after our meeting and told him that if I were to move down here I would need one ticket instead of three (meaning my wife would be more likely to move to Hanover than Haiti.)

Other updates: I was successful in watching the game here on Sunday, my streak of breaking cameras seems to have continued, and I found out Sprint would be happy to give me free wireless calls from Haiti if I owned one of 4 phones they support on their network that will work down here (which I don’t own now.)  

Pwochèn jouk tan…orevwa.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Is it Saturday?

There are no days off after a disaster if you're working on the ground. The only way I would know its Saturday is the lag time in hearing back from folks via email or phone call that normally doesn't happen during the workweek. Today is a good day for me to catch up on messages that came to me while I spend most of the day out in Cabaret.

Cabaret sits about 20 miles north of Port-au-Prince and was originally built as a testament to the will of the Duvalier regime here in Haiti (some maps still show it as Duvalierville - not a good thing for them due to the issues around the last Duvalier in power here.) This community was still reeling from flooding after multiple storms in 2008 when the earthquake hit and damaged more than 9000 homes there. We had a chance to see some of the homes we built there and only some of them sustained damage. All but a few of those were repairable.


We met with the local CCPC (civil protection committee) and talked about how we could help there by providing structural engineers (and other engineers that had been properly trained) that could go through homes and tell families whether or not their home was safe to stay in and what kinds of repairs they would need. This would help address the many tents that we saw sitting outside of homes in perfect condition after earthquake. We would also later work on building about 400 transitional homes there.


On the way back from Cabaret we hit a massive traffic jam near the airport in the early evening. Despite the traffic we had a chance to joke around with some of the UN, US military, other NGOs, and doctors passing by us since there wasn't much we could do about the cars in front of us. Lesson learned: try to avoid bringing stuff into Port-au-Prince on Friday.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Turning Down the Pressure

It seems like its been a long time since I've written in this space but a lot has happened since my last posting (obviously). I am now sitting in an apartment in Pétionville, just to the east of Port-au-Prince, trying to catch up on things back home as well as evening messages for work.

The irony I noted earlier via Twitter (or an earlier post here) is that I don't necessarily spend time keeping up with some of the news coming out of Haiti and would only know it if I happened to catch it while looking for something else on the Internet or overheard it. I've talked and wrote back to a lot of people that have more language and cultural expertise that could be put t use here that I need to prove myself worthy of the opportunity to be a part of the solution. Maybe I'm just kidding myself though.

It is stunning to see so many people sleeping out on the street here not knowing if there house is safe enough to stay in at night or because they just don't have a house any more. Many people fear that there will be more quakes soon and they could be right on the money with that prediction. I've been working with others here on a big push to get engineers organized to at least be able to give families some sort of assurance on their home so they know what they're dealing with. We hope to bring local and international engineers together soon to start this. That should help lift some of the burden on the caregivers until the rains start.

I've only been to one cluster meeting so far but it seems like the UN cluster system has some distinct advantages over the way we do things in the states. I think one of the good things that can come out of this event is the exposure of the international response arena to our friends in federal government.

I think I'll stop there for now and try to bring you some interesting maps next time. Orevwa.