Haiti and the Net – a Case Study in Real Time News

Emily Purser pens a terrific account of how Sky News put together the story of the Haiti earthquake in real time using Twitter, Facebook and Google Chat.  

Here are some excerpts:

Last night, Sky News was the first international news platform to have pictures from on the ground and a live interview from Haiti – we were the first to know what was going on. Here’s why.

Unsurprisingly, the earthquake took out all the landline and mobile phone lines in Haiti immediately. This obviously disabled the country spectacularly – as well as the pressing issue of not being able to speak to each other, it meant that Haitians were not able to speak to the rest of the world. As a result, the classic ways of gathering information for a rolling news channel – call everyone we know and find out what’s happening- were redundant. We had a map, and that was it.

However, those with generators still had access to the internet (if they we willing to stay inside) and a few still had the web on their phones. At the beginning of the night, there was nothing coming in from the news agencies, who were having no better luck than us at finding out what was going on. So we turned to the crowd – what were people saying on the ground, right now?

Twitter proved invaluable. Amidst a lot of well-wishers, there were a few people tweeting from Haiti, giving us an instant update on what was happening…

That led us to Facebook, where a young radio journalist had uploaded 15 odd photos from the streets. Carel Pedre was offering his services to those abroad trying to find families, so was inundated with messages, so we started talking to him on Google chat instead. The Gmail account comes to the rescue! So suddenly we had an inside track – and permission to use photos.

The next step was to talk to Carel on the air – but there were no phone lines. So we turned to Skype. By this point we were talking to lots of people, constantly manning the Twitter searches and Facebook post searches.

DARPA originally asked the question “Would it be possible to design a network that could quickly reroute digital traffic around failed nodes?”  Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype and YouTube have proven themselves to be the social internet protocol  – the network that can quickly reroute digital news around failed infrastructure.

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