Aaron Zinman and Greg Elliott are dyed-in-the code nerds: graduate students at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they sell projects on the iTunes store, dabble in music and art, and have done stints at industry behemoths including Google and Dell. But early last year, they headed down a different path—helping people in a country that neither of them has ever visited: Haiti.
They call their project "Konbit," a Haitian Kreyol term for community members helping one another out, like a traditional barn raising. In this case, Zinman, age 30, and Elliott, 29, are building a digital helping hand—a sort of cell-phone based Monster.com -- of available Haitian workers and their skills, that they hope will be used by nongovernmental organizations and others rebuilding Haiti.
Along the way, Zinman and Elliott have developed an enhanced appreciation for the subtle power of a digital communications infrastructure—mostly because of what Haiti lacks.
"In the U.S., we could basically put together much of this system overnight," Zinman says. By contrast, before they could get their system to work in Haiti, the MIT students had to buy a server, ship it to Haiti and work with mobile telecommunications leader, Digicel Haiti, which attached the hardware to its cell phone network. "It took so much work to get the server in place," marvels Zinman. "We hope other projects are going to be able to build on our services."
Konbit began to take shape soon after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Inspired by a class discussion, Zinman and Elliott began brainstorming about how to create a communications hub that could address what they swiftly realized would be a long-term problem for Haitians, namely finding work.
"Jobs are everything," wrote Paul Farmer, founder of the Boston-based Partners in Health, in an article about lessons learned in Haiti in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine. "No matter how hard the government or aid industry tries, people will want for [food, water and money] until they are employed."
Reconstruction so far has provided 116,000 jobs in a country of 9.8 million, where almost half were unemployed before the earthquake. "If we focused our efforts on the singular task of getting them jobs—even if we did nothing else—Haiti's reconstruction could be a success," Farmer concludes.
Yet connecting experienced workers with the right jobs is a daunting task. Local newspapers publish only sporadically. Half of Haiti's population is illiterate. Many speak only Kreyol.
"People here find jobs through the 'radyo djòl,'" or "radio of the jaw"—effectively through the verbal grapevine, says Ali Lutz, the Haiti program coordinator for Partners in Health.
Zinman and Elliott set out to create a searchable database of local workers. Whipping together a software demonstration took two months; getting all the nuances right was more agonizing. The system had to accept information via the most ubiquitous technology in Haiti, namely cell phones. It had to work in Kreyol. (Zinman and Elliott then had to get the messages translated.) It had to give them incentives to take part. Rather than ask about formal jobs, it had to prompt people to describe their life experiences. (See box: Konbit's Q&A).
The idea won fans: in May, the students won the top prize at the MIT IDEAS Competition; the Freygish Foundation and General Atlantic chipped in. Google is offering to host the database. Digicel, Haiti's largest cell phone carrier, also threw its support behind the project. All told, the students raised $18,000 for the project.
Many of those dollars went to help the students integrate their digital approach into what has been a decidedly non-digital world.
"In the U.S., we would have used a Voice-over-IP (VOIP) system—but in Haiti, VOIP isn't an option" for connecting with the wireless network, Elliott says. That meant shipping a specialized server to Digicel. Automated translation of the voice messages was too prone to make mistakes; the students opted to pay people in Haiti to translate from Kreyol. To speed up translations, they are also inviting ex-patriate Haitians to help translate messages.
In August, more than a dozen Haitian immigrants in Miami helped try out the system. Marli Lalanne, now with Konbit for Haiti (which is unrelated to the MIT program) helped run the trial. Most people had no hesitation about using the technology. But everyone wanted to know: would it get them a job?
"If we focused our efforts on the singular task of getting them jobs—even if we did nothing else—Haiti's reconstruction could be a success."
Zinman and Elliott hope to find out soon. In late December, they launched a radio campaign led by celebrity Bob Lemoin, announcing Konbit in Port-au-Prince. Digicel is both making the cell phone calls to Konbit free—and rewarding callers with up to three minutes of free air time (or 5 text messages). Within the first three weeks, Konbit logged more than 700 calls. They hope to translate enough calls by February that they can start sharing the database with potential employers.
"We think Konbit could be a very valuable tool because there's a lot of decentralized development going on," says David Sharpe, Head of Products for Digicel Haiti. Sharpe also pointed out that a system like Konbit could be valuable in any country that suffers disruptions such as earthquakes. "We will need more catalogues of local workers," he says.
Zinman hints that several NGOs are intrigued by Konbit and plan to survey its emerging database. Even Digicel may be browsing through the records. "Many organizations call Digicel asking the company to help recommend workers," Sharpe says. "We are waiting to see the results" as people begin to place their calls.
"It is an experiment," emphasizes Lalanne. "We've never seen anything like this in Haiti."