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Please visit us at Impact Opportunity!

April 26, 2013

For more information from us, please visit Impact Opportunity, which is an expanded version of this project.  This blog has been discontinued, but has been left available as a reference document.  Please feel free to explore past posts and thank you for visiting!


Interview with the team behind the Campaign for Safe Building

May 27, 2011

Here is my interview with the team over at the Rubin Foundation.  Their insights after several years on this project are very helpful.

What do you see as the biggest obstacles to safe building in Haiti today?  How does the current situation differ from prior to the 2010 earthquake?

The biggest obstacle to safe building in Haiti is the lack of a preexisting culture of safe building, and the requisite building codes and inspection systems that can enforce it. This was true before the earthquake, and remains true now; after the triage, there will still be huge challenges in rebuilding safely because there are no practices in place to support it.

What is the one project or process that could have the largest impact in terms of improving safety?

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Ideally, we would find an outside entity to build in Haiti as they build safely in their own country, involving and educating local professionals in the process. It’s an untested idea, but the severity of the situation in Haiti seems to demand some new ways of approaching the problem.

Is there a country or region with similar conditions that could donate its building code for Haiti’s use?  How could such a project be implemented?

Yes. The code that is adapted to different cities in the United States, the International Building Code (IBC), could easily be used in Haiti. But implementation is very difficult in a country whose infrastructure – governmental, logistical, and otherwise – is so fractured. We’re working on a plan for an NGO that can work in various countries, offering services for building code development in various regions (modified from the IBC), plan review, and inspection. It could also work to educate governments and local professionals about integrating building codes into construction practices.

Is government involvement essential to promoting safe building and building inspections in Haiti?  Would it be possible to expedite the process with an NGO or alternate structure?

Government involvement is helpful, but not essential at this point. We think that an independently functioning NGO would be best; it would be able to streamline and concentrate the process. We hope that it could support government efforts for safe building in various ways, as well.

What is the next step for the Safe Building project and how can people get involved?

The Campaign for Safe Structures is excited to be spearheading a new academic course at the Yale School of Architecture this fall, bringing up-and-coming architects into the conversation around safe building as they prepare to launch the next phase of their careers, which will likely involve building in international locations that lack coherent building codes and inspection systems. The course will include a symposium on November 4 and 5, 2011, that will convene stakeholders from across sectors, examining the issues around safe building and working to create new solutions. We invite interested parties to attend and join in the effort to find effective approaches to safe building. This conversation also includes the development of the aforementioned NGO; we hope to bring in new allies and stakeholders to help us shape this in the most effective way possible. For more information on the various parts of the Campaign for Safe Building, and to join the movement, please visit

The Power of Mapping

May 8, 2011

We heard a little but about the use of crowdsourcing to support humanitarian intervention, thanks to the response from Jungle Light Speed.  One of the links they offered led me to this video:

OpensSourceMaps is still working on the ground today to help inidivudals map their neighborhoods.  Many of them have never been on any map.  Having a better idea of what the country actually looks like and where people are actually living today can only help the reconstruction effort, particularly when it come to the assignation of land rights.

Christa’s Angels: Rebuilding Schools

May 7, 2011

A recent comment suggested that rebuilding safe schools may be a good focus for the reconstruction effort in Haiti, so I thought I would explore the subject a little bit more.  Christa’s Angels is an organization dedicated to the reconstruction of schools in Cabois, Haiti.  Christa Brelsford maintains a blog for discussing a joint project with Heads Together Haiti, an education provider.  One of Christa’s recently accomplished missions was to help rebuild the school where she was volunteering during the earthquake.  The project was funded through the generosity of the Zyman Family Foundation.

The school was completely demolished during the earthquake and the children of Cabois were left with no school to attend. The rebuilding effort was focus on speed, safety and sustainability.  During the rebuilding of the school, Christa used her knowledge of engineering to design a system for rainwater harvesting.

Here is a video about the new school that was built after the earthquake.  It is narrated by John Engle of Haiti Partners:

Maybe rebuilding safe schools is an effective starting point.  They are easier to secure funding for than personal homes.  The land rights are probably more secure.  They impact the whole community and can help to rebuild morale.  They could also serve as examples of how structures can and should be built to be sustainable and resistant to both earthquakes and hurricanes.

The problem is, of course, that schools are not homes.  People still need safe places to live.

Using Ushahidi for Reconstruction

April 28, 2011

A couple of days ago, I posted the following comment on the Jungle Light Speed‘s article “Evaluating crowdsourcing for humanitarian response“.  Below is their response:

  1. Chloe Demrovsky Says:
    April 25th, 2011 at 3:46 pmHas any thought been given to how Ushahidi could be used to assist reconstruction efforts?
  2. Rob Says:
    April 25th, 2011 at 11:07 pmHi ChloeThere has been a lot of thought about how mapping strategies can assist reconstruction efforts. Open Street Map have been especially active. The Noula platform built by the Haitian company Solutions has much of the same functionality as the Ushahidi platform ( and is used by a number of national and international orgs. People who worked on Ushahidi Haiti helped with its development although I don’t think it actually uses any Ushahidi code or components (the strategy is more important than the actual technology used, as I’m sure both Ushahidi and Solutions would agree).

    For Ushahidi itself, the only deployment in Haiti since that I am aware of is a non-public one that George Chamales and myself deployed for relief organizations in the lead up to Hurricane Tomas. Different organizations within Haiti had different pieces of vital information: official safe shelters; buildings declared strong enough to survive the hurricane; the distribution/population of people living in camps; and the contact details of community leaders in those camps. The various organizations had not yet agreed on data-sharing technologies (we had to collect from some data sources by memory-stick/motorcycle) so we used an Ushahidi instance to simply aggregate all the information (the plugin architecture gave it a slight advantage, but other mapping solutions could have been used too). That way, if it became necessary to evacuate the camps the powers-that-be could quickly contact the camp leaders who would in turn direct people to shelters/safe buildings with appropriate capacities. Haiti resident Sabina Carlson was the driving force behind the preparation ( It was also tied into the Information Ministry who had previously used the Noula platform with success to send out cellphone-tower-specific SMS alerts to people in camps with imminent flood danger – one of the more innovative uses of SMS in Haiti that has been under-reported in the popular media/blogs.

    We were all relieved when Tomas ultimately passed through Haiti much more mildly than was first feared. So the alerts were not sent and this particular instance was not made public.

Chile Proves the Point

April 27, 2011


Treehugger posted a great article by Lloyd Alter comparing the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti.  They pose the question: did building codes save lives?  The answer is an unequivocal yes.  It cites the statistic that the number killed in Chile is roughly 1/10 of 1% of the number in Haiti.  A lot of that can be attributed to safer building.  The use of a steel frame (see image above) and the correct mixture of concrete help buildings hold their shape during quakes.

 Is it more expensive to build safe buildings or is the problem a knowledge deficit?

Thinking Beyond Temporary Solutions

April 25, 2011

The National Institute of Building Services released a white paper called Building a Foundation for the Renewal of Haiti: Recommendations for a Long-Term Building Strategy with the support of the whole U.S. Building Community.  One of the first problems they mention is the density of the Haitian population, particularly in Port-au-Prince.  Somehow I have neglected to mention this up until now.  They also highlight the need for the Haitian government to step up and show strong leadership to bring its people out of their temporary solutions.  Once again, the importance of a national building code is stressed: “A single national system of requirements will provide the Haitian people with consistent examples of how to properly construct buildings”.

An interesting point is that safety standards can be disseminated through schools, just as the campaign to buckle up while driving was targeted at schoolchildren in the United States.  Parents tend to listen to their children’s safety  needs, so it can sometimes be an effective strategy.  But convincing people that they need to address their safety risks won’t solve the problem unless they have access to resources.