Humanity Road founders, Christine Thompson and Catherine Graham, have been harnessing the power of computer networking and internet and mobile-based technologies to improve disaster response since the 1990s. Years before social media was recognized as a legitimate communications tool, they were active in social networking, pairing their knowledge of new technologies with citizen digital humanitarianism in an effort to close the communications gap that occurs during times of emerging and sudden onset disaster.
Thompson and Graham were led into crisis response during the Cuban exodus of 1980. When over 100,000 Cubans arrived on U.S. shores, nearly 20,000 were taken to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, where Thompson was hired as secretary to Robert Adamchik, the FEMA officer in charge of the base. Thompson supported camp operations and logistics. Graham, who was with Church World Services, interviewed refugees in order to place them with family and friends. Once contact was established, Graham would arrange for transportation and temporary immigration paperwork. In 1999, after watching aid workers struggle to communicate with each other in the aftermath of the Oaxaca, Mexico, earthquake, Thompson developed a communications kit that included cellphones and 10 laptops preprogrammed with internet software and agency forms for specific populations. A product manager at the time, with the phone company that later became Verizon, she continued to improve her prototype and in 2003 created a wireless broadband concept that won Verizon Avenue, a subsidiary, an award for broadband provider of the year. The following year, Thompson managed the unveiling of Verizon’s award-winning FiOS internet broadband service.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Region in 2005, Graham was a team lead for the Gwinnett County, Georgia, American Red Cross Disaster Action Team, and Thompson was a Red Cross volunteer in Virginia. After Katrina caused major recovery and reunification issues, Graham’s Lawrenceville office unexpectedly became a major response participant. One of the greatest challenges was connecting those affected with resources, but Thompson and Graham had a plan; one that they had been thinking about for over a decade—they launched the beta test of what would become Humanity Road’s JOAN (Joint Online Access Network). JOAN consisted of laptops configured with desktop icons and links to databases and the websites of the major agencies participating in the local recovery efforts and was the communications hub for the American Red Cross Joint Resource Recovery Center that housed various agencies including FEMA. Approximately 10,000 displaced persons were able to register online for aid. After the success of the Joint Online Access Network, Thompson and Graham continued to devote their time and knowledge to support other disasters and emerging events around the country, using their vacations and other times off for humanitarian response.
In 2009 Thompson joined Twitter and started monitoring and tweeting about the Iranian elections using what is now Humanity Road’s “verify-times-2” approach to online disaster communications. Thompson, and other spontaneous volunteers, searched for and identified misinformation and collected the names and photos of Iranians who went missing during the election protests. While Thompson was active on Twitter, Graham was mastering Facebook. Both Thompson and Graham understood the latent power of social networking to do humanitarian work and when Haiti was hit by a catastrophic earthquake in 2010, they were ready to use that undeveloped power to respond and support recovery efforts.
To support the disaster response and recovery in Haiti, Thompson and Graham began working virtually with a group of digital humanitarians located in different countries. Almost a year later, equipped with an amassing knowledge base of best practices for digital disaster response and communications, Thompson and Graham held the first official meeting of Humanity Road. They incorporated their nonprofit in 2010 with a plan to close the communications gap during disasters through a combination of process improvement, collaboration and partnerships, and education and training. In the three years since it was founded, Humanity Road has responded to more than 500 emerging disasters around the world including Hurricane Sandy, where its citizen command center in Rockaway, New York, provided communications access for 40,000 affected residents. Humanity Road regularly participates in national and multinational conferences and exercises and provides training in crowdsourcing, crisis mapping, and internet and mobile-based disaster communications. Humanity Road is honored to have been selected by GreatNonprofits as a 2013 top-rated nonprofit and recognized by GuideStar Exchange for transparency in reporting.
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