Tech entrepreneurs aiming to pass on earthquake experience to Japan

Monday, March 21, 2011

Accustomed to taking their lead from Japan in technology trends, a group of Chilean entrepreneurs are brainstorming to see if they can advise the Japanese on how to use technology to address some of the challenges faced following the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Digitales por Chile is a foundation that was set up in the hours following the magnitude-8.8 earthquake and devastating tsunami that rocked Chile on February 27 last year.

The spark happened when Pedro Fuentes, CTO of the Latin America operations of deal-of-the-day website Groupon, sent out a tweet posing the question of how the technology sector and NGOs could coordinate in helping relief efforts.

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Within hours, a diverse group of young professionals from a range of vocations got together to set up a website called ("Chile helps"), designed as a communication channel to let people know how and where to help.

The techies in the project customized Google's finder to Chile's particular idiosyncrasies (considering that Latin Americans use two surnames, for example) and a geo-reference map pinpointing key areas that could be of use, such as gas stations or areas where there was fallen debris.

"It was aimed at people who wanted to help or needed to find people, not people that needed to be found or that didn't have connectivity," Ricardo Faúndez, executive director of Digitales por Chile, told BNamericas.

In total, some 25,000 people used the site over the ensuing weeks.

The World Bank became aware of the site and invited the group to become part of the Crisis Commons, a global network of volunteer technology developers who use creative problem solving and open technologies to help people and communities in times and places of crisis.

On March 20, 2010, some 20 days after the earthquake, the first crisis camp was held in Chile, bringing together 60 volunteers and representatives from eight NGOs.


Not only was the post-earthquake relief effort discussed, but the group decided to make Digitales por Chile a long term project - a foundation.

"There was an abyss between the world of NGOs and technology. We wanted to be the bridge," Faúndez said.

Digitales por Chile currently works with the Red Cross and América Solidaria, a Chilean organization that coordinates and finances professionals to give up six months to one year of their lives to go and work as volunteers in needy areas of Latin America.

Inspired by Digitales por Chile's example, a similar group called Digitales por Venezuela was set up to help with relief efforts following mudslides in that country, also using a customized Google people finder.


Faúndez says he is not expecting a small group of techies from startups in Chile to teach Japan anything about technology.

Rather the idea is put together some guidelines on how this Chilean group went about coordinating the efforts of the technology segment and relief organizations to see if there is a contribution they can make, no matter how small.

"Maybe we could do a Wiki page of what we did. Maybe it could be an application. Maybe they can customize the Google or Facebook finder. Even if what we can offer is not of use to them now, maybe it might be at another time," Faúndez said.

Digitales por Chile consists of a range of tech entrepreneurs located in the nicknamed "Mapocho Valley," which refers to an area in Santiago where there is a cluster of tech startups.

Companies include software developers Oxus, mobile application developer Baytex and digital marketing and measurement company Zoom.