Haitian Tech Firms Rush to Rebuild
Days after a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti, collapsing buildings and killing close to 100,000 people, communications continues to be the main information technology infrastructure concern, and companies are rushing to restore what can be salvaged from the rubble.
Ory Okolloh, a South Africa-based Kenyan lawyer and cofounder of Ushahidi, said the site has received very little traffic from Haiti, which suggests that what little IT infrastructure there was has been "significantly" disrupted.
Most of "the mobile network still appears to be down, though [we're] getting reports that Blackberry is working. We've been struggling to get a local line or short code [numbers] that people can use," he wrote in an e-mail response to Computerworld. "Radio stations also appear to be down."
Okolloh said there are indications that some Haitians are able to communicate via satellite phone and to get online via satellite. Twitter and other social network sites were a lifeline for communications in the hours and days after the earthquake.
"So it's not a complete blackout," Okolloh said. "I've seen urgent requests for satellite phones to be donated for Haiti government officials."
The first plane to touch down at the Port-au-Prince Airport was a charter from Trilogy International Partners LLC, Haiti's second largest cellular phone service provider.
With little to no IT infrastructure, getting communications running as soon as possible is a top priority, said Ann Saxton, treasurer of Bellevue, Wash.-based Trilogy.
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The IT industry as a whole is also working to send personnel to help repair what little IT infrastructure the country had as well as collect money for aid.
In most Third World countries, cellular phone networks are the primary means of electronic communications because of the expense of installing land lines, said William Hughes, director of consulting company Business Continuity/Disaster Recovery Center of Excellence at SunGard Availability Services.
"It's a country that depends on tourists and agriculture. They're not very advanced from an IT perspective. That's what's going to drive things during this recovery," he said.
Trilogy, which provides service for the Voila Comcel mobile network, said it had restored the network by midnight Sept. 13 and began sending members of its disaster recovery team around to each of the 300 or so cell towers in Haiti to check the infrastructure for damage. Trilogy provides cellular service to about 1 million Haitians, Saxton said.
While the network is up, the power is not sustainable, she said. Even before the earthquake, Haiti's grid only provided for about eight hours of daily power. Diesel generators were required for the remainder of any given day.
Trilogy has so far been able to verify that all of Voila's buildings in the country are has accounted for all of its staff, the vast majority of whom are nationals. "Most of our employees we're just trying to keep safe at this point," Saxton said.
Voila's network continued to operate for several hours through the aftershocks before it was forced to shut down the switch to maintain its integrity until its generators and cooling systems were back online.
Trilogy is now focused on managing traffic and adding capacity as rapidly as possible to aid the humanitarian efforts in Haiti. Saxton said the network is being flooded with traffic.
Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Americas. More than 60% of its people work in agriculture, and have low literacy rates. Reliance on technology is tied to a business need to continue operating during an incident. For example, during Katrina, there were companies out of business, but their market was also gone, according to SunGard. The market for most Haitian businesses is most likely local with suppliers and customers both disrupted.
Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at@lucasmearian, send e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org subscribe toLucas's RSS feed.