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CrisisCamp comes to Miami

"I just want to help".

That's pretty much what every one of the more than one hundred people said this afternoon as they went around one of the largest conference rooms we have here at The Miami Herald, which helped host  CrisisCamp Miami, one of now 12 such gatherings that is focusing on technology relief efforts for Haiti. The room was full - of web developers, programmers, software engineers, people who focus on bringing Internet and VOIP services to developing countries - and others who just wanted to help.

CrisisCamproomWeb CrisisCamp started in DC last week, days after the earthquake hit Haiti. It's basically a grassroots effort that brings together the tech community in a series of collaborations, all designed to help Haitians and Haiti recover.

"I saw the DC one, and when I heard there was one coming to Miami, I said "Yes!"," Haitian-American web developer Harry Casimir told me. Casimir, a native of Port-de-Paix, now lives in West Palm Beach, and came down with his cousin, Jean Petit-Bois, and another friend, David Anderson, for the day, hoping to lend a hand with both their technological and language skills.

Casimir and Petit-Bois have family all over Haiti, and told me how frustrated they've been with how bad communication has been.

That's the idea behind CrisisCommons projects like Open Solace Haiti, which is trying to set up ways for Haitians in and outside of Haiti to communicate.

The goal for the day is for everyone to meet, brainstorm and begin collaborating. Organizer Alex de Carvalho told me he was excited about the turnout, and thankful that people had responded with such goodwill.

"I'm hoping some of these people will plug into these projects," he said, adding that he's hoping to further develop an infrastructure here not just to help Haiti, but that could even be used the next time South Florida gets hit with a hurricane or other natural disaster.

For more information on CrisisCamp, you can visit its wiki page, or, to keep up with them on Facebook, you can fan their page.

Posted by Niala Boodhoo at 02:29 PM on January 23, 2010 in Current Affairs , Facebook , Twitter , Web/Tech , Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

For those in Haiti, Facebook's a lifeline

I suspect you always feel disconnected when tragedy strikes and you're far from home. Last Tuesday, I was working in Los Angeles for the week when I found out about the earthquake in Haiti -- via a text message.

My first phone call was to my dad in Miami. My entire life, my father has run a small nonprofit organization that partners with Haitians on education, nutrition and employment projects in several villages. I first visited the country when I was 12. Between college and graduate school, I taught at one of two American schools in Port-au-Prince.

That year, I lived with some close family friends -- the call to my dad was to find out if they were OK. He didn't know.

Els My next step was to check Facebook, where I saw friends in Haiti posting status messages. Inside my Facebook in-box, Els Vervloet, the alumni director for my old school, Quisqueya Christian, had sent our alumni/students/faculty group the first of what became a series of heart-wrenching messages that were, for the first 48 hours, my best source of information.

She described how teachers from my old school had run to the Caribbean Supermarket to start pulling people from the rubble. She talked about landmarks and neighborhoods that I knew and what she had seen and heard. And so many people started messaging her to help find friends and family that Facebook shut down her account because it suspected she was spamming people.

She posted a frantic message on her Facebook wall, where others also mentioned their accounts, or the ability to message people, had been temporarily disabled because of the high volume of activity. I contacted Facebook to find out what they were doing. (For the full post on that, click here.)

When I got in touch with them, a spokesman told me that in "rare cases,'' regular users can get caught in the site's automatic spam defense system. He suggested people in Haiti e-mail Facebook tech support and said they would screen messages to find people mentioning Haiti to expedite their cases. In the past, Bridget and I have described Facebook's user community evolving faster than the site -- this seems to be the most poignant example.

In the first few days, my feed was full of status updates like this one:


I spoke to one of the daughters of a family I know that lives in Haiti. She went to college in Indiana, got married and stayed in the United States. She's used to using social media to stay in touch with family in Haiti.

For her, and many others, Facebook was all she had. She, too, told me stories of how friends were rescued because of status updates that directed help their way.

I continue to see posts that are difficult and inspirational from friends in Haiti and colleagues reporting there for The Miami Herald.

Usually in this space, Bridget and I write about ways people use social media to connect, mostly for business. Last week, it was something so much more. Els, the alumni director, summed it up to me in a email she sent me this week: "Facebook Facebook has been my lifeline these past days!", she said, adding: "I never thought I would say this, but THANK GOD we have Facebook."

Posted by Niala Boodhoo at 11:27 AM on January 19, 2010 in Facebook , Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Facebook users in Haiti say some access has been blocked

Everyone's been reporting about how social networking sites like Facebook have become the primary form of communication during the devastating earthquake in Haiti this week. Unfortunately, this morning I started hearing reports from several people in Haiti who are now being blocked because they've sent so many messages in the past two days.

Picture 1  Facebook has a fail safe to prevent spam from happening, so often times accounts that are really active will be limited from sending messages. I suspect that's what is going on here - unfortunately, in this case, it has caught people like Els Vervoloet, who is the alumni director for Quisqueya Christian School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I lived in Haiti ten years ago and taught at this school - and all of Els's messages through Facebook have been the primary way I've known how people in the community are doing.

UPDATE: Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said in an email to me in "very rare cases" some Facebook users in Haiti are encountering the system's automatic response to prevent spam.

Picture 2 He said that users who were getting close to a limit on messages should have been warned by the system that they were getting close to sending too many.

If you're in Haiti and your entire profile has been blocked, contact Facebook here. That explains the warnings, and if you go directly to the "my account has been disabled section, that shows you how to email Facebook to get access back. (Note: this isn't something that can be done on a mobile phone, you have to do this on an actual computer.) Noyes also said the Facebook team will be looking through the system for the term "Haiti" and will expedite those requests.

Finally, Noyes said that Facebook was always looking at "adjusting and fine-tuning" their systems based on how people are using the site. "We're looking into the behavior we're seeing out of Haiti to analyze how our systems might be improved," he said.

Facebook said they're looking into it - I'll update when I hear back from them. If you're in Haiti and having a hard time, leave your name in the comments section below so we can see how widespread this problem is.

Posted by Niala Boodhoo at 12:36 PM on January 14, 2010 in Current Affairs , Facebook | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

Resolve to get your business in social media shape!

Last January, we'll bet you resolved quite firmly that 2009 would be the year to get your business involved with social media.

Well, it's January 2010, and somehow you've managed to avoid our polite nudges to dip a toe into the social media space all year.

Clearly, our friendly advice hasn't worked. So this year, we thought we would try tough love instead.

For most businesses, if you're not on social media, you're losing out on lots of potential growth. 2009 was the year that sites like Facebook and Twitter became mainstream -- and the growth of people depending on social networks increasingly for information.

We get that it can be intimidating to get started -- and you don't have the time to do it. So here are some tangible, practical resolutions that will help incorporate social media into your daily routine.

Make the time. Some people have a built-in social media reflex that's the same as e-mail: They're constantly checking their in-boxes throughout the day. We know that's not you. Start by booking five- to 10-minute chunks of time for social networks on your daily schedule. Make a resolution to do it three times a day: Check in with an account first thing in the day, right before you take a lunch break (or during your lunch break if you work through your lunch) and again sometime around 4:30 p.m. -- right before people leave for the day.

Find your audience. If you're selling a product, you can use a Facebook Fan Page to interact with potential customers: The best way is to talk about sales, coupons or new products, or give shoutouts to die-hard fans. The more interaction, the better chance you have to show up on someone's news feed and catch more eyes.

For Twitter accounts, you need to start following accounts that may be good fits for the audience you're trying to reach. For example, if you're a restaurant in Miami, search for people with "Miami" or "South Florida" in their location. A site like http://twitter.grader.com/search will help you find the most active Twitter users who fit the keywords you are searching for.

Use tools: We'll bet the major reason you haven't dived in is because you find social networks to be a hassle. Using Twitter on the Web is messy. Familiarize yourself with tools that make using Twitter easier and help you manage your time better. Free programs like Twhirl or Tweetdeck provide notifications when you have a message so you can leave them on all day.

Tweetdeck also allows you to set up specific search columns and be notified anytime someone says the name of your company or mentions the service you provide, so you can be there to respond.

Finally, in everything that you do, remember to be genuine. Whether it's Twitter, Facebook or another social networking site, learn how to talk -- and listen. Remember that it's about making human connections. Communicate the same way you would with a friend, instead of using formal corporate speak. Listen to what your customers are saying and respond. In short, conduct yourself the same way you would if you were face to face with a customer or client, and you'll be fine.

Posted by Bridget Carey at 06:01 PM on January 5, 2010 in Facebook , Twitter | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

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