Greg Elliott and Aaron Zinman both were raised in northern California, where earthquakes are common.
When the 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti last year and killed more than 300,000, the pair — now grad students in media arts and sciences — got an idea.
“Amid all the chaos, the American Red Cross was trying to find people to help out,” Elliott says. “We thought, What if they had known how to find them beforehand?”
“If we had a map of people’s skill sets in the hours after a crisis, things would be a lot better organized,” Zinman adds.
So together the team launched Konbit, a free service via phone and the Web that helps communities rebuild after a crisis by indexing the skill sets and life experiences of local residents, and allowing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — like the American Red Cross, Partners In Health, or Oxfam America — to find them and give them work. “It’s like a Haitian LinkedIn,” says Zinman, adding that the service would also boost the economy by retaining all the money pouring into Haiti.
A month after the earthquake, the pair had built the system. Then, they began talking to people at various NGOs, asking lots of questions, including, “Would this service be useful?” Most often, they heard: “Yes.” Using their comments to refine the system, next they partnered with a Miami community center to test the service with 30 Haitian Americans. Officially, they launched the service in Port-au-Prince last December.
Konbit, a Creole word that means working together for the good of the community, now makes it possible for unemployed Haitians to call a toll-free number to record their skills. The first thing a caller hears is the trusted voice of Bob Lemoine, a well-known radio personality in Haiti, who encourages callers to leave a message. Three thousand people have called in.
“I’m a mason,” one says. “I care for children.” “I’m a car mechanic.” Another adds: “I have taken it upon myself to wander the streets looking for those who have lost limbs, and I volunteer to sing to them to make them happy.”
Zinman says the calls are then transcribed and translated and are posted online as a searchable resume for organizations, like the American Red Cross, to find them.
Along with some grants, the pair won $8,000 in the 2010 MIT IDEAS Competition to work on the technology. That competition is an invention and entrepreneurship contest that encourages students to change the world.
Launching the service remotely, neither Elliott nor Zinman ever has been to Haiti. They met 11 years ago as college roommates at the University of California, San Diego. They are now working together to soon launch a software services and applications company.
Zinman says: “Instead of just building another technological gadget that’s cool, we asked ourselves, ‘Can we actually make a huge impact on an economic situation in a chaotic country like Haiti?’ It’s been interesting not only in an academic way, but also in a humanitarian way. The biggest thing we’ve learned is that the power of people to join together is extraordinary.”