U. of Colorado Lab Helps Haiti Victims Tweet for Aid

Shortly after last’s week’s earthquake in Haiti, a group of students working in a laboratory in Colorado unveiled a project that makes it easier for victims and volunteers to tweet for help.

The lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Atlas Institute, produced a guideline for a “help specific” Twitter syntax that allows tweets requesting help to be easily processed by a computer program. The program organizes the messages by “hashtags,” as code words used in Twitter are often called, that express need and location. Then the software can send the information to an organization providing relief.

The lab is working to educate people in Haiti and elsewhere about the conventions. Victims and volunteers could get help more quickly if they used the syntax to tweet, and volunteers anywhere can reformat tweets from Haiti and then forward them to others.

“We have this small army of volunteers out there translating tweets into this other format,” said Kate Starbird, a doctoral student who helped conceive of the project.

Ms. Starbird said that the project had been in the works for months and was not specifically designed for Haiti. When disaster struck there last week, the lab decided to unveil the project even though it had not been completed.

“We had to try,” Ms. Starbird said.

Ms. Starbird acknowledged that most Haitians would not have access to a cell phone or other device that could be used to tweet. But volunteers arriving in Haiti in the quake’s aftermath are likely to have such capabilities, she said.

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