SMS Turks

If you’ve been reading along on the Ushahidi Blog, you will know that the coordination efforts around the Haitian Earthquake have been nothing short of amazing. The students and volunteers at the Fletcher School Situation Room, the translation volunteers on the Mission 4636 project, the teams and staff of Digicel, Comcel, Energy for Opportunity, FrontlineSMS, InSTEDD, Sahana, Cartika Hosting, the US State Department, almost all branches of the US Military providing humanitarian response and a list of individuals and organizations that could honestly go on forever, have come together in an unprecedented way to work together to help solve problems on the ground and to get information out to any and all interested parties.
My role in all of this started shortly after the Ushahidi-Haiti instance was up and running, providing technical support and new, rapid development on the instance as needs arose. Virtually all of the core developers were working around the clock making sure critical bugs and new features were taken care of, as well as making sure the servers were running smoothly.

github - SMS TurksThe home of the future redevlopment of SMS Turks on github.

While everyone was in full gear working on the website, we were able to secure the 4636 short code with the help of Josh Nesbit of FrontlineSMS, Digicel and Comcel. We just had one problem, the stakeholders who were going to be digesting these messages and passing them along to the appropriate organizations spoke English and some French. Messages being sent from Haitians on the ground would be coming through primarily in Haitian Kreyol, which would have made it nearly impossible to categorize, map and respond. So, my focus shifted towards the short code effort. With the help of InSTEDD donating server space and Robert Munro handling volunteer feedback, I was able to write a system at that would allow translation, categorization and basic geocoding of all the messages that came in. I’ve coined this project, “SMS Turks.”
In crisis situations, it’s always better to use systems that have been tested thoroughly that can scale well. Since SMS Turks was literally put into production the day it was built, there were bound to be issues. Also, volunteers can only put in 12 hour days translating text messages for so long. CrowdFlower graciously offered their services to pipe the messages through their system, handling the technical aspects at no cost to Ushahidi. Over time, as volunteers go back to their day jobs, Samasource will be providing Haitian’s paid opportunities to process the messages as they are coming in, allowing us to put money into the Haitian economy.
The SMS Turks system will be entirely rewritten from the ground up as an Ushahidi project. It will be easily pluggable into Ushahidi, as well as produce feeds that should work with virtually any other open system.