Another significant initiative undertaken by the tech community was the 4636 project. Organized by Ushahidi, InSTEDD, and others, the 4636 shortcode is a number to which any Haitian can send an SMS free of charge. Each message is piped directly to a Web interface, where Creole-speaking volunteers in the diaspora translate and categorize it. Over the past week nearly 8,000 messages have been processed by a dispersed group of translators logging in from Miami to Montreal. Requests for urgent assistance (like gasoline for a clinic, or hospitals with capacity) have been translated (on average) in less than one minute, and dispatched to the appropriate responders on the ground in ten.

While neither the people finder nor the 4636 short code are perfect, they represent real contributions to the relief effort that can – and should — be extended and perfected. Strikingly, they were built almost entirely by volunteer information activists using distributed “open source” methods of software development. The success of these methods should be noted by aid and relief communities, as well as the traditional media.

Chris Csikszentmihályi directs the MIT Media Lab's Computing Culture group, which works to create unique media technologies for cultural applications. He also directs the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, which develops new technologies and techniques to strengthen geographic communities.