Three months of collaboration in Haiti

by Anjali Sastry on May 8, 2010

MIT efforts support humanitarian needs assessment in Haiti

It’s early May, and our team of hard-working MIT and Tufts students has been refining its analysis of data collected in Haiti and documenting lessons learned, which in the weeks ahead will be combined into a final report. They’ve spent many a day in conference rooms like the one shown here. There may be no windows, but there are plenty of electrical outlets. Most weeks, some half-dozen students would each work on a laptop, jotting notes on the whiteboard, debating the design of the analysis, and discussing locational coding and data elements. What do we call the intensive, work-until-you’re-done session? Now you know: it’s a “datapalooza.”

Later this month, we’ll share some reflections in a day-long “After Action Review” organized by MIT Lincoln Laboratory to further consolidate insights gained through the wider data collection and analysis effort in Haiti. The review is designed and run by colleagues from across Lincoln Lab and features others on the distributed team including Dr Louise Ivers of Harvard University and Partners in Health/Zanmi Lasante.

The combined MIT team aims to share materials and participate in the wider dialog about how to better manage and assess efforts in humanitarian emergencies.

More background material appears earlier in this blog, but here’s an overview of what we’ve been up to: MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the Center for Transportation and Logistics, and the Sloan School of Management have been collaborating on assessments to inform humanitarian efforts in Haiti in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake. The project was designed to take stock of the state of food, shelter, water, health, and security for residents of Haiti on an ongoing basis. The MIT collaboration emerged as a partnership with the U.S. military’s Joint Task Force in Haiti, known as JTF-Haiti. Initially tasked with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, JTF-Haiti soon took on a role of coordinating and collaborating with lead agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti. To serve the entire community, JTF-Haiti initiated a data collection effort that drew on expertise from many organizations, and specially-trained personnel gathered in-person information from hundreds of displaced individuals, camp leaders and health facility workers on a rolling basis every day for some two months, recently completing the first phase of the effort.

The entire project was initiated in late January, when the need for information became clear to Dr. Marc Zissman, Assistant Head of the Communication Systems and Cyber Security Division at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, who was called to Port-au-Prince to support the JTF-Haiti efforts. He contacted MIT campus colleagues, asking for help, and eventually assembled a wider team. Now, Dr. Israel Soibelman, Division Head of Homeland Protection and Air Traffic Control at Lincoln Lab and colleagues from across Lincoln Lab are involved. And our ad-hoc MIT campus team that first formed in early February continues to work alongside the team, with Engineering Systems Division Ph.D. student Erica Gralla making two separate trips at the outset and the close of the assessment process, to help refine, manage, and interpret the complex data project.

The all-volunteer campus team paired nine graduate students from across MIT and elsewhere—some lining up class projects, others simply volunteering—with Dr. Jarrod Goentzel, director of the Master of Engineering in Logistics program and the humanitarian logistics research project and MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Dr. Anjali Sastry. The team developed a set of white papers to present context and background to stakeholders, then examined the data as it came it, identifying questions, assessing trends, and helping to develop a picture of needs as the situation unfolded. The students spent much of their spring break working at MIT, and gave up weekends and early mornings (a sacrifice for any busy student!) to meet and collaborate. A subset focused on one critical area, housing, asking what the existing literature and the incoming data suggested about potential interactions and trajectories. This additional effort suggested that system dynamics could help address the challenges of addressing immediate needs and setting the stage for sustainability.

Naturally, our plans now shift as the present 7-week long data collection process is now complete and students move on to their summer jobs and post-graduation careers. But we hope to continue to learn, build connections, and collaborate across the MIT community and beyond to make the most of our experience and to partner with colleagues in Haiti and elsewhere.

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