Responding in a Time of Need
Jean Orelien left his native Haiti in 1980 and later made his way to the U.S. to attend college. He stayed on, earning advanced degrees in statistics and public health. In 2001, Orelien founded SciMetrika, a public health consulting firm that works with agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency. After a massive earthquake devastated Haiti last January, Orelien organized a nonprofit team to gather data on victims, with the goal of helping aid organizations more accurately target their relief efforts. Now, Orelien hopes to conduct similar studies around the globe.
As I heard the news reports on the earthquake, I realized there wasn't a good handle on what was happening. There were estimates on the number of the dead and the homeless coming from various news media, and they kept on changing. It wasn't clear who was helping to collect that data. I thought that as someone who knows the country and as a statistician, I could help. I felt a duty to contribute.
I reached out to the president of the American Statistical Association about providing volunteers. He told me it would take too much time to put together a proposal for the board to vote on. He recommended that I go to Statistics Without Borders, a member group within the organization. We exchanged a couple of e-mails, and they were on board.
In March, I went to Haiti with three members from Statistics Without Borders. Our goal was to gather data on displacement and the economic impact of the earthquake. The standard method of collecting data is to conduct a field survey where interviewers knock on doors, but that would not have been practical. Then we saw that pretty much everyone, especially in Port-au-Prince, had a cell phone, so that was the way to go.
I still have cousins and in-laws in Haiti. I brought along three tents for them. That's the most I could carry. I wasn't prepared to see people living in such substandard conditions. There were a lot of people who weren't even living under real tents -- they were makeshift tents. I saw people taking showers, and their privacy was not even protected.
I stayed in Haiti for nine days in March. We met with Voilà, one of Haiti's main cellular providers, and we talked to people in the Ministry of Planning. We were able to call about 200 numbers for a preliminary study to determine our sample size. Once we got back in the U.S., we finalized our questionnaire.
In June, I went back for seven days to collect more data on things such as marital status and household structure. We had 10 university students from Haiti serve as interviewers. We're analyzing the data now. With all the problems with latrines, with sewage, certainly there are diseases that have broken out. Public officials need to be aware so that they can take action in a timely fashion.
We're in the process of creating a nonprofit organization to pursue projects in global public health. There is often resistance among aid organizations to working with for-profit companies, and we don't want our status to prevent us from consideration. After the earthquake hit, we received information that the CDC was planning to help rebuild Haiti's health infrastructure. We want to be part of the solution there, and we want to get involved in other countries as well.
My connection to Haiti is a big part of my desire to work globally. Certainly, there's a greater need there than in the U.S. when it comes to public health. I also feel that I have not paid my dues. I had gone back to Haiti a couple of times since coming to the U.S., but not as much as I should have. I'm living a normal life, in a suburban area with my wife and four kids. I think my work with SciMetrika thus far is a start, but it's just the tip of the iceberg, and I'm looking to give even more.