According to both the World Bank and the UN’s International Telecommunications Union one million Haitian residents had internet access before the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake. That’s a startling statistic for the country commonly shorthanded as “The Poorest Nation in the Western Hemisphere,” but it’s also the kind of nice, rounded figure that suggests complicated, back-of-the-envelope maths dependent on other numbers, approximations and calculations. Take for example, the depressing statistic that Haiti’s main landline provider, Natcom, boasts a mere 40,000 customers using 170,000 phones, most of them clustered in earthquake ravaged Port-au-Prince and used by businesses, institutions and the wealthy. Once an entirely state-run monopoly known as Teleco, Haiti’s telecommunications provider has long been a source of both local frustration and international controversy. Rather than a real system, it was at best a profitable rest stop for non-technical political appointees and crony capitalists, while the less-politically-connected and the poor had to endure lousy service and decades-long, Kafkaesque waits to get a landline installed. That particular national farce took a curious turn in May of last year when 60% of Telco was bought by the Vietnam-based Viettel for $59MM, the irony being that a state-run entity with roots in Vietnam’s Army was buying another state-run entity in the name of privatization. The Vietnamese Army engineers of Viettel/Natcom (described in breathless reports as “crisply shirted” in a can-do echo of surging Chinese investment in Africa) assure us that by 2015 they will have the entire country laced with optical fiber and WiMAX base stations, not literally paving the streets with gold but at the very least doing what Haitians seem to have been unable to do for themselves. And who could complain about that, really, beyond Haiti’s tiny public employee unions as they waved goodbye to their meager handful of jobs?
Given the poor state of the county’s hard telecom infrastructure even pre-Goudougoudou, Haitian telephony and internet usage has developed into an almost entirely wireless affair. By most accounting less than 5000 Haitian residences have in-home internet, but 30% of Haitian households have reliable access to a cellphone running on the networks of Haiti’s mobile providers (Voilà, Digicel and Haitel), making the average Haitian’s point of entry into the system as likely to be via the Borrownet (as in, “Can I borrow your phone for a sec?”) as it is via owning the phone itself. Pre-paid calling cards are a giant, thriving business and cell-phone equipped street vendors proliferate, as do ad-hoc calling centers. Spread out across that cloud-like 30%, the equally hazy-seeming one million begins to come into slightly clearer focus, claims about Haitian “internet access” kitchen sinking both numerous ways to connect and a wide range of activities such as calling, texting, picture-sharing, mobile app usage and, most recently, mobile money transfer thanks to the arrival of an SMS-based transfer system akin to those already in place in Brazil, Kenya and other countries. That million Haitians adds up then not just to a developing consumer market but to a varied social network where access is shaped not just by hard economics but by complicated and shifting sets of relationships.
Seen from the other side of the water and semi-reflective screens, though, the internet seems chock full of Haitians. This is even more the case post 1/12/10. Discussions of internet usage by the US-based Diaspora are usually subsumed under accountings of the African American telecommunications market, where the headline has shifted from dire, turn-of-the-century warnings of a persistent digital divide to effusive meditations on the arrival of entire sub-genres of hip hop powered by social media (mildly NSFW NPR link), or pun-laden riffs on the African American mobile consumer’s affinity for the BlackBerry. (The darker the mobile phone, indeed!) Black people and Twitter is recurring blog fodder (as is winking rebuttal), every new generation of tech pundit discovering anew that usage of digital tools is driven as much by economics as by desire, people the world over gravitating towards the tools that provide them with what they need when they need it. (Egypt, anyone?) And what did Haitians in the diaspora need desperately after January 12, 2010? Ways to connect, ways to think through issues, ways to take the temperature of their community, ways to code shift, ways to orate, ways to publicly speak private languages, ways to engage in in-jokes, ways extend and preserve politics and ideas, ways to bear witness, ways to cry out, ways to tell the world and each other that we were still alive.
Twitter turns out to be a great way to do all of the above. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and since, Twitter has been home to ongoing conversation about #HAITI initially rooted in immediate needs on the ground – #HELP, #NEED, #TRAPPED, and so on – but that now looks to use the digital tea leaves to sort out the nation’s future. With final #HAITI presidential election #ELECTION results expected today expect that conversation to grow even louder. Haitian American blogger Alice Backer recently offered a survey of Twitter usage amongst candidates in the still unresolved and found the same spread of social media stars and dunces that you’d expect to find in any modern-day election:
–> Mirlande Manigat @mirlandemanigat 1,661
–> Michel Martelly @presidentmicky 6,395
–> Jude Célestin @judecelestin10 199
–>Charles-Henri Baker @CharlesHBaker 1,447
Looks like Michel (Sweet Micky) Martelly –who placed second in the first round according to the OAS — has gleaned the most followers. This makes sense because he attracted plenty of tech-savvy supporters, including @carelpedre (18,000 + followers on Twitter) and @karljeanjeune, two twenty-somethings who made a name for themselves by tweeting the earthquake live. @carelpedre and @ramhaiti, both Micky supporters, are also arguably the two Haiti-based Haitians with the most followers on Twitter (18,000 and 15,000 respectively).
With a measly 199 followers, @Judecelestin10’s campaign seems to have underestimated Twitter as a communications tool. Or is it that the candidate of the ruling party simply felt he did not need as much help as the others? Even @CharlesHBaker, who did not place in the top three, has about 5 times as many followers!
Front-runner @mirlandemanigat who is 70 and @charlesHBaker who is in his sixties deserve kudos for having accounts and have each scored around 1,500 followers. [full story]
In the spirit of Backer’s accounting, we’ve created a list of people tweeting about Haiti. The list is not intended to be comprehensive, nor does its composition intend to reflect the full spectrum of Haiti’s political landscape. It’s just a beginning that we’ll be updating, so let us know if you think anyone should be added. Also if you have a list of your own of Haiti related must follows, link to it here below in comments.
The black Twitter icons depicted above were borrowed from the Instant Vintage blog’s great post on the “Black Twitter” fracaso of 2010.
These blogs on Haiti are part of a larger multimedia project entitled “Haiti: One Day, One Destiny.” Click here to see short and feature-length video from the series, even upload your own stories, and vote for which Haiti non-profit gets a $2,000 grant from us.