To The Rescue: The American Red Cross Online

Interview by Josh Wilson

Born in 19th century out of the vast suffering of a world at war, the Red Cross movement brought a singular humanitarian perspective to the global stage. Since then empires have risen, fallen, and been reborn, transnational economies have changed billions of lives — and not always for the better — and the Red Cross remains as relevant as ever. In the aftermath of the Haiti and Chile earthquakes, the American Red Cross is fusing the humanitarian impulse of the pre-digital era with the emerging gobal community of online citizens, to singualar effect. Josh Kittner of the Red Cross sheds some light on it all.

What’s the best way for a person to support aid efforts when disaster strikes?

The best way to support relief efforts when disaster strikes is to make a donation. People can donate in support of the relief effort in Haiti at or by calling 1-800-REDCROSS. Mobile donors can text “Haiti” to 90999 to make a $10 contribution.

A $10 donation would provide a first-aid kit equipped with enough ointment and bandages for a Red Cross responder to treat 15-20 injured earthquake survivors. A $10 donation also can provide a family with two water cans to store clean drinking water, basic first aid supplies or a blanket.

You can also help support relief efforts by spreading the word to your family and friends.

What sort of online tools does the Red Cross provide to those who want to support aid efforts?

The Red Cross is active on its blog, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. Everything the Red Cross puts on these sites is sharable and we encourage our amazing supporters to use it all. The Red Cross also actively encourages its fans, followers, and other stakeholders to share tools with one another.

How have the Internet and wireless tech affected Red Cross humanitarian operations in the field?

Internet Service Providers in Haiti were affected by the earthquake: infrastructure was hugely damaged and communications to the outside world was significantly reduced. Given the magnitude of the disaster, and overall damage to infrastructure and services the time-frame for repairing these communications and re-establishing connectivity was unclear.

The Red Cross network, through its two IT/Telecommunication Emergency Response Units that were deployed to Haiti, (with one from the American Red Cross) were able to establish both IT and telecommunication infrastructure to jump-start the immediate communication needs for the overall Red Cross response efforts in Haiti. They maintain the communications networks for the ongoing operation – both IT at Red Cross operational headquarters in Port-au-Prince and to radio-based communications to connect teams of Red Cross disaster specialists to each other while in the field.

The overall advent of internet connectivity has allowed for instant information sharing within and between the Red Cross and humanitarian world during a disaster. It’s provided the necessary means to effectively communicate the immediate needs and information about the disaster on the ground and to the world.

Also, information sharing between agencies, and access to secondary information allows increased analysis and a clearer understanding of where other agencies are working, what they are finding, and what they are planning on providing in terms of humanitarian aid. This has lead to a better coordinated and integrated response from all humanitarian groups on the ground during a disaster. There is much more communication, coordination and integration; and much less confusion.

What has been the impact of Twitter, Facebook, your blogs, etc.?

Joe Gray’s analysis is an excellent response to this question:

Within hours of the earthquake, @RedCross tweeted: You can text “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to Red Cross relief efforts in #haiti. This text meme quickly took root in social networks. According to web analytics firm Sysomos: There were 2.3 million tweets about “Haiti” or the “Red Cross” from Jan. 12 to Jan. 14, and nearly 150,000 tweets that included “Haiti” and “Red Cross.” Of the 2.3 million tweets, 59% were retweets. There were also 189,024 tweets that included “90999.” This is clearly an unprecedented case of the effects of social media on fundraising.

What’s the future of communication technologies and aid operations?

The increased use of GPS technology allows for more accurate and predictable reporting on where the immediate needs are, and where organizations are helping. GPS also allows for the accurate identification of key people, places and things during a response to a disaster.

In addition, cellular phones are commonplace now in the developing world and can now be a tool to be used to communicate directly to people. In Haiti, the Haitian Red Cross, in partnership with a local cellular phone company, has been able to disseminate health information messages, such as where to find medical assistance and how to keep clean in the situation to customers with phones. To date, over 17 million health messages have been sent this way.

As well, cellular systems are becoming more robust, and rapidly cellular is replacing satellite systems in terms of communication between entities. With networking of towers, and not dependant on land lines, cell phone system can be prominent part of communications.

During a disaster, it’s always an advantage to rely on a technology that doesn’t depend on infrastructure for it to function. In many disaster locations, the Red Cross uses High Frequency (HF) radios to communicate over long distances or over areas that are mountainous. They do not depend on satellite systems or repeaters to boost their signal.

Is social media a new way to communicate the moral imperative of the “worldwide movement” that the Red Cross is part of? What can our world learn from the principles of that movement?

Our approach to using social media tools is to help people prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies. Our approach to the social web is to celebrate and give voice to Red Crossers of all stripes. The Red Cross tries to be relevant and inclusive while fulfilling our mission and exuding our fundamental principles.

What kind of Web traffic do you get?

  • Total visits, January 1, 2009 – December 31, 2009: approximately 10 million
  • Total visits, January 12, 2010 – March 2, 2010: approximately 19.7 million

Howbout online donations?

  • Number of online donations in 2009: approximately 102,000
  • Since 1/12/2010: approximately 1.5 million

Josh Wilson is the co-founder of Independent Arts & Media and the publisher of

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