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Techies unite to brainstorm help for Haiti

By Doug Gross, CNN
A worker at a crisis reaction center in Berlin, Germany, on Thursday views a map of Haiti.
A worker at a crisis reaction center in Berlin, Germany, on Thursday views a map of Haiti.
  • CrisisCamp Haiti gathers tech experts to look for ways to help Haiti earthquake victims
  • Free-form meetings are set for Washington, Silicon Valley, London and elsewhere
  • Volunteers come from tech companies, universities, government agencies
  • Plans include interactive map of Haiti and a database to help families find missing loved ones

(CNN) -- Call it Techies for Haiti.

On Saturday, groups of programmers, Web developers and other assorted technophiles will meet in Washington and other cities to brainstorm ways computer technology can help in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.

CrisisCamp Haiti will bring together professionals from tech companies, universities and government agencies for a free-form session of firing out ideas, then turning those ideas into action.

The result, they hope, will be tools that will help rescue workers find victims and help family members find loved ones, along with other kinds of computer-based assistance.

"It's a way to provide technological tools and expertise to help those who are on the ground in Haiti with their humanitarian relief efforts," said Gabriela Schneider, whose group, the Sunlight Foundation, will be hosting the Washington meeting. "It's kind of like the way Doctors Without Borders might go and help, or people from afar might get together to send goods."

The eight-hour event is being coordinated by Crisis Commons, a group which, according to its wiki page, "is meant to capture knowledge, information, best practices, and tools that support crisis preparedness, prevention, response, and rebuilding."

A similar get-together was scheduled Saturday for Silicon Valley, California, and organizers were trying to plan others in New York, Los Angeles, California, London, England, and Denver, Colorado.

As of Friday afternoon, nearly 100 volunteers had publicly registered to attend the Washington event. Their employers ranged from Internet startups to universities to government agencies, including the State Department and U.S. Geological Survey.

"It's a growing community that should not be underestimated," Schneider said. "They're tech-savvy and they know how to use networks well."

For Jonathan Nelson, a programmer and product manager who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, but telecommutes for a company in Washington, CrisisCamp Haiti is a chance to take some small action in a situation that otherwise felt overwhelming.

"You watch the news and it's like post-9/11 trauma again," he said. "Haiti is so far away -- you've got obligations here, but you want to contribute. I just thought, 'I've got to get up there.' "

Among the possible projects that participants plan to tackle:

• Building an open-source base layer map of Haiti that can be used by nongovernmental groups and others working in the country

• Creating an online locator system for families seeking lost loved ones

• Setting up an online communications tool similar to Twitter that would allow relief workers and others to talk with each other in real time

Other ideas could emerge. The group uses what's called the BarCamp model, which allows conversations and projects to develop organically and without hard and fast agendas.

"This is getting out of the red tape -- getting out of the corporate inefficiency -- and just having one common purpose and being very agile," Nelson said. "It'll all be a continual process."

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