Crisis Camp Haiti: Techno-types volunteer their computer skills to aid quake victims

For four days Gordon Thomas watched the horror of Haiti’s earthquake unfold and wished that there was a way for him to help.

But the 30-year-old San Diego man is a software engineer, not a medical doctor or a search-and-rescue expert who can drop everything and rush off to deliver emergency aid to the Caribbean island nation.

So on Saturday he decided to use the equivalent of a digital pick and shovel to help Haitians with the long-term job of digging out their quake-crushed country.

Thomas and about 45 other self-described “techies and geo-geeks” and other volunteers met at USC to collaborate on ways to use computers to design improved maps of battered Port-au-Prince neighborhoods, concoct better family-locater services for quake victims and speed more accurate and timely relief information from more closely coordinated data feeds.

Computer programmers organized companion “Crisis Camp Haiti” workshops Saturday in Northern California’s Silicon Valley; Boulder, Colo.; Washington; and London.

“Being in San Diego, I didn’t think I could do much more than donate some money to help Haitians,” Thomas explained as he worked on a mapping project. “We’re trying to use technology that will identify the needs of non-government organizations on the scene, using simple cellphone-like communication that anyone can use.”

Thomas persuaded a friend, San Diego software programmer Pranab Shenoy, 26, to accompany him to the eight-hour session. “I’m glad to be able to help by using the skills I have,” Shenoy said.

Santa Barbara online mapping expert Chad Catacchio organized Saturday’s Los Angeles workshop on about a day’s notice. He used the Internet to spread the word and recruit volunteers.

Among those who showed up on short notice were representatives of Google, NASA, the United Nations, the American Red Cross and the Los Angeles City Fire Department, said Catacchio, 33.

“The next time there’s a crisis here or elsewhere, we’re going to be better prepared. We’ll be able to hit the ground running, rather than limping,” said Josh Rehman, a 34-year-old computer programmer from Seal Beach.

Among the volunteers was Ghislaine Constant, 56, of Hollywood, who has two family members in Haiti who have been missing since Tuesday’s temblor. She spent the afternoon translating neighborhood names from French and Creole into English for the programmers.

USC freshman Layne Kaplan volunteered to compile a running report on the workshop on Twitter with her laptop to help the techies communicate with “Crisis Camp Haiti” sites operating elsewhere. In the middle of her work, Kaplan received a text message from her mother in Houston.

“My mom said at least I’m doing something productive,” Kaplan said. “She said she’s looking for something to do for Haitians too.”