Alex Counts

Rebuilding Haiti with Mobile Phones: How mobile data collection and management is facilitating relief efforts

I have been involved in poverty reduction through holistic microfinance in Haiti for more than nine years, mainly representing Grameen Foundation on the boards of various entities within the Fonkoze family of organizations. In fact, over the past three years, I have been to Haiti on average every two months, which has really given me an opportunity to see the potential and limitations of different anti-poverty approaches. Indeed, the experience has been such a learning opportunity that I have been writing a blog about my work in Haiti since 2011.

As I write this I am in Bangladesh, a country that was, during the 1970s, in much the same condition as Haiti is today: economically fragile, politically dysfunctional, saddled with weak institutions and suffering from the aftermath of various natural disasters. Today, despite many problems, Bangladesh is much stronger, and my hope is that Haiti can follow in its footsteps and become one of the great success stories of the 21st century.

I recently had the opportunity to visit J/P HRO, a respected relief organization that was founded by actor Sean Penn in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. It is one of a growing number of humanitarian organizations and social enterprises using TaroWorks, an innovative Grameen Foundation technology solution.

TaroWorks was originally designed to facilitate analysis of data gathered on mobile phones using Grameen Foundation’s Progress out of Poverty Index, a survey tool designed to easily measure poverty levels of families and how they change over time. But TaroWorks evolved into something much bigger: a world-class, mobile-based field-force management tool. Built on the Salesforce platform, it allows user organizations to efficiently track the progress of and manage the performance of distributed networks of employees, contractors and volunteers.

J/P HRO, which I found to be a very impressive organization, has been transitioning from managing some of the largest tent camps and clearing massive amounts of rubble to moving so-called internally displaced persons or IDPs (i.e., the inhabitants of the tent camps) into permanent housing in Port au Prince, the nation’s capital, or in the countryside. In addition, they run a community center and a modest but thriving health clinic, both of which were originally based in one of the tent camps, but are now serving the wider community.

I was struck by the complexity of accurately cataloguing every family amongst the thousands of IDPs, and tracking their progress as they go from being a refugee to being permanently resettled. The sheer amount of information (including GPS coordinates, tent numbers, multiple signatures and photos) that needs to be collected and organized to ensure a relatively seamless process, and to guard against error, fraud or duplication, is quite daunting. Subsidies for building or repairing houses are based on many factors, including an IDP’s economic status, meeting certain performance benchmarks for building or repair, and proving that one was in fact displaced by the earthquake.

The sensitivity with which J/P HRO’s small number of expatriates (all of whom speak Creole) and largely Haitian and Haitian-American staff go about this work is remarkable. They also work quite well with the Haitian government. Indeed, their success in clearing rubble landed them the contract to demolish the national palace that was damaged beyond repair during the quake.

What was most encouraging, from a Grameen Foundation perspective, was how TaroWorks was making this entire process much more efficient, orderly and error-proof. For J/P HRO, the fee required to use this tool was clearly well worth the benefits it has already realized. While they had some suggestions for making it an even better tool, they were a highly satisfied customer.

Grameen Foundation does not specialize in disaster relief or post-disaster resettlement. Nor do we focus on urban poverty, as our priority today is reaching marginalized people in remote rural areas. But with tools like TaroWorks, which is designed to be run as a profitable social enterprise, we are able to provide tangible value to organizations that are active in these critical areas.

Thanks again to my hosts at J/P HRO, and kudos to the TaroWorks team at Grameen Foundation – whose outstanding progress has recently led to major votes of confidence from eBay Foundation, Qualcomm, Salesforce Foundation and Cisco.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Grameen Foundation’s blog. It is cross-posted with permission.

Alex Counts founded Grameen Foundation and became its president and CEO in 1997.

Technology, Telecommunications
poverty alleviation, telecommunications