Helping Communities Respond to a Crisis: Konbit

We all remember the devastation of the earthquake in Haiti earlier this year MIT mobilized its resources to respond to the disaster and communicate the challenges associated with the earthquake. MIT students Aaron Zinman and Greg Elliott responded by creating a way for communities to rebuild themselves after a crisis by indexing the skillsets of local residents, allowing NGOs to find and employ them. That idea became known as Konbit, winner of an IDEAS2010 award. We asked Aaron and Greg a few questions about Konbit’s progress:

It has been nearly four months since we saw you at the IDEAS competition. How have you used this summer to propel Konbit forward?

We have been beta testing Konbit with a community center in Miami. That has gone well, and we are shipping our servers to Haiti now.

You planned on launching Konbit this summer. Have you found NGOs and Haitians eager to use Konbit? What have been the challenges, successes and effects of Konbit so far?

To connect with NGOs is a bit of chicken & egg. They want to meet with us once we’re launched, but we want to have jobs for people when they call in. We have enlisted one so far, but essentially need to get further on the ground before we can get the jobs.

Having worked out the agreement we did with Digicel is probably our biggest win, in addition to the support of the wonderful center in Miami (Konbit for Haiti is the name). They have various connections in Haiti and will get Bob Lemoine, a well known radio announcer, to re-record our voice prompts for us. This will allow a trusted voice to answer the phone. Prof. Michel DeGraff previously translated and recorded the prompts, which have done well in our beta tests, but we constantly get feedback about trust issues in Haiti. This has been suggested as a possible way to help mitigate this issue.

Has IDEAS helped you realize Konbit in a way you might not have otherwise?

The funding is invaluable. We have used some to procure the card that interfaces w/the telcom for the server (which we were separately able to acquire funding for), and is going to pay for shipping the server to Haiti (22% VAT customs + normal shipping costs). We will also use the money to pay for the hosting and in the long-term the phone calls. We may also fly to Haiti with the funds.

You both have engineering backgrounds. Tell us what are you learning about business as you build Konbit?

Understanding how to reach out to people. We have having to build key partnerships across many different kinds of people (non-profits, telcom companies, community centers, local haitians, etc), and understanding how to communicate our vision with them and align interests is key. That has been invaluable.

I understand your idea was at least partially built in the Media Lab. Can you tell us about the original seed for this idea?

After the earthquake professors Christopher Csikszentmihalyi, Dale Joachim, and Michel DeGraff organized a class to put together a MIT response. We heard a lot about the Haitian struggle and much politics, and after iterating through several ideas we simplified into a system that we thought would be useful in the medium term while addressing issues we heard about in the class (namely how NGOs bring in outside labor instead of hiring locally).

Where to next?

Hopefully all of Haiti. That’s a big milestone as is. We also have interested parties in South Africa and Indonesia in the long, long-term.

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For more about Aaron and Greg, you can find them on twitter and on their website.

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