Michael Taylor '10 - Helping Haitians Stand on Their Own

I was leaning out the passenger-side window to take a picture of a collapsed concrete building when my friend ran our SUV into the ditch.  It was an easy enough thing to do, since the ground was covered in soft mud and stringy vegetation, and one could never be too sure if the muck would support anything much heavier than a wheelbarrow.  Our vehicle's two right tires were hopelessly mired in a trench of muck with the approximate consistency of day-old pudding.  I internalized the fact that my AAA card wouldn't do me much good in Haiti.  Bernard and I climbed out of the SUV and exchanged a few meaningful glances, which was about the extent of our communication, since we didn't share a common language with any fluency.  Then, as I glanced back at the ruined building that I had been photographing, I saw about a dozen young kids peering out from the doorway.  Because we were so far into the rural areas of Leogane, I must have been a fairly strange sight, and they came running out to meet me.  They were most interested in my hair, and curious about the fact that I didn't speak Creole (they probably just thought I was stupid).  After examining me for a few moments, they circled around the car a few times, and immediately set about to solve our problem for us without any request from Bernard or myself. 

My beard was a great source of amusement.
            In addition to their eagerness to help us out, what amazed me about these kids was their incredible resourcefulness.  Their strategy mostly involved getting rocks from a nearby pile of rubble and pushing them under the tires and into the mushy ground so that Bernard would have a surface with traction to drive the car out.  After we had lined the ditch with debris, Bernard got in the car and I took my place at the rear as the twelve kids and I started to push the vehicle out of the mud.  With a median age of about ten years old, these children displayed amazing ingenuity and resourcefulness to solve a problem that would leave many full-grown adults in our country feeling completely helpless, and the only thing they wanted in return was to be able to play with my camera for a few minutes. 

These were some of the awesome guys that helped us get our SUV out of the mud.

            This was just one story from my travels through Leogane and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  It was the first of hopefully many trips to the country in an effort to help equip the population to stand on their own in the years to come.  This is my main role as a staff member with the Community Robotics Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab.  The CREATE Lab, a part of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, is responsible for a wide variety of projects ranging from Arts and Bots (formerly Robot Diaries), which aims to make robotics more accessible to underserved demographics through the use of craft supplies (http://robotdiaries.posterous.com/), to Gigapan, a robotic camera mount and stitching software that captures incredibly detailed panoramas with multiple-gigapixel resolution (gigapan.org).  The unifying thread of these projects is that they are designed to empower, educate, and connect communities through accessible technologies.

My project description is about as broad as you can imagine.  Our first focus was to help Haiti with its massive rubble problem, but I also have the flexibility to keep an open eye for any opportunities that our lab might be able to assist with.  In short, I bought a plane ticket to Haiti and arrived in Leogane with just a duffel bag full of equipment and my Olin education.  What I learned in User-Oriented Collaborative Design has been my most important tool in understanding the people, culture, and challenges of Haiti.  While I was taking the class, I remember questioning whether or not what I was trying to do would be something that I could actually draw upon if I was ever called to use it in the real world.  Maybe some students taking the class now have felt the same.  In short, yes, yes you can.  And you will, without even making a conscious choice. 

In design terms, my "users" are the doctors, staff, and patients at the CAMEJO  Hospital in Leogane.  Haitian Doctors Marie-Carmel Charles and Joseph Charles opened their small clinic in Leogane nearly 30 years ago.  When their patients came to number over 80,000 people, they began the construction of a new 100-bed hospital in 2002 to provide superior healthcare to everyone in Leogane and the surrounding communities of Gressier, Grand Goave, and Petit Goave.  The hospital was a mere six weeks away from opening its doors when the January 2010 earthquake brought it down again.  Not to be deterred, Dr. Charles and staff are delivering care out of a 10-bed wooden shelter while planning for the future when they can rebuild.  The most important thing is for the hospital to be independent and self-sufficient, serving as a model for the rest of Haiti as it rebuilds for its future.  On my third night at the hospital, Dr. Charles explained to me that one day all of the aid organizations and NGOs will move on to help another country, emphasizing the need for his hospital and a stronger Haitian infrastructure: "We must do something better, you understand.  We must prepare for that future, because we will remain."

Later in my trip, I connected up with the Ecole Superieure d'Infotronique d'Haiti, a university in Port-au-Prince, and a crew of mappers and community volunteers from Grassroots United (http://grassrootsunited.org/) and OpenStreetMap (http://www.openstreetmap.org/).  The mappers are gathering detailed information on the labyrinthine streets of Port-au-Prince using handheld GPS units and inexpensive tools.  Grassroots United is a haven for sustainable community-oriented projects, and my time with them was all too short.  Unfortunately, I was forced to return from my trip earlier than expected due to an improbable case of malaria (despite all precautions, including antimalarials and twice-daily dousings of bug spray).  I am better now, though, and I hope to return as early as January.

So that's how I've been putting my Olin education to use. I took on this project immediately after completing my Masters in Robotics at CMU's Robotics Institute, and in less than a month and a half I was on a plane for Haiti. It was an amazing opportunity, and I regret that it was cut short by my illness, but I imagine that this is only the beginning. If you want to get involved in a project like this, there is no better time than right now. Even if you're only vaguely interested, send me an email (mdt010{at}gmail.com) and I'll do all the legwork to get you started and connect you to the right people. And, if you want to make a contribution to Leogane, one of the best possible thing that you can do is to donate to Renewal4Haiti (http://renewal4haiti.org/), which is working to rebuild CAMEJO and give it the tools it needs to sustain itself. No matter what you do, just put your education to a worthwhile cause, give back some of what has been given to you, and whatever you choose to accomplish, believe in your ability to meet and exceed your own expectations. 

Posted in: A Broader World View, Alumni Speak, Learning about Design, Making a Difference