About two decades ago, I recruited a small team of law students to assist with legal aid efforts at the Haitian Resource Center in Miami. We were motivated and proud to be helpful, but the infrastructure was quite primitive compared to today; the two 386-powered PCs I brought alone greatly increased the amount of documentation we were able to churn out during our short stay. (I will always be grateful to the ex-girlfriend who donated one of them to the HRC - thanks Andy!) The HRC was a great organization and I am proud to have been helpful in a small way, but there was significant overhead in having to physically travel and share information via paper, and no real opportunity to create an enduring social network to facilitate further efforts.
Today, the first thought on the the death, maiming and further impoverishment of hundreds of thousands of Haitians which has quite properly occupied our attention for days is that we owe at least a moment of silence for those who have died.
Amid the gloom, the good news is that the world is reacting better, faster, smarter than before. It is tempting to note that in part this is because our own United States has a leader interested in responding to disasters than playing air guitar or having birthday cake with a crony. But of far more significance is not the role of any individual, but of the voluntary network of millions of individuals, a network that is far more intelligent than in the last decade, and that is learning fast.
It is physically difficult for aid outside of the island of Hispaniola to reach the Haitian disaster is almost a laboratory, so the abilities of the worldbrain is being tested in ways different from Katrina or the Indian Ocean Tsunami. First the mobilization of facts is faster than ever, using not only official channels but self-organizing groups such as Crisis Mappers Net. There's a lot of links to suchlike at Beth Kanter's "Haiti Earthquake: Orphans, Crisis Mapping, and Tech Volunteers"/
The mobilization of resources is vastly improved with "mobile giving" cellphone donations and much easier tools to check on the validity of charities. It is awfully encouraging to be reminded that if you ask someone to through $5 or $10 into the pot to help people they've never met and never will, a huge number of people will; all that they want, for the most part, is to be sure the money will be used well.
Now, there are the usual passel of assholes using this disaster to rail at Obama or liberals or even the Haitians themselves, accusing them of having sold themselves to the devils. (No links provided; you can find them easily enough.) I guess there must be some people who believe that stuff because the assholes are still selling ad time on radio and TV. But I doubt their target audience is the young and growing demographic that is leading the growth of the intelligent network; their factual claims are so easily disproven by the intelligence of the network and the network response is wholly at odds with the assholes' advice. There is reason to hope that these will pass away, unlamented but sadly raging to the last. I am tempted to denounce them with righteous denouncement but that's playing their game; spiritual leaders from Jesus to the Dalai Lama have a better way.
Let's keep doing what we can to help our neighbors who we cannot physically reach, and be encouraged that we are able to work together more effectively than even a few years before.