News / Americas

Cell Phones Become Lifeline for Haitian Survivors

Coast Guard volunteer Ryan Bank
Coast Guard volunteer Ryan Bank

Haitians struggling in the aftermath of last month's earthquake have been turning to cell phone text messages and Internet postings to reach out for help. The U.S. Coast Guard has been mining data from those sources to direct aid to those in need.

From a pair of computer screens in downtown Miami, Coast Guard volunteer Ryan Bank can survey the needs and the despair of Haitians in the wake of the January 12th earthquake.

"A school has 110 children trapped ... I have four children. My house is destroyed. I'm hungry. I'm asking you to help me please," he read some text messages. Those are just some of the 18,000 messages that have come into the offices of the Coast Guard's Haiti operation in Miami. Bank manages the tiny operation, scanning text messages and online services like Twitter and personal blogs.

In the days after the quake, Haitian cell phone users were unable to make phone calls, but they could send text messages and access some Internet services. As soon as those messages started coming in after the quake, Bank says he saw an opportunity. "The Coast Guard is here to save lives. And I was able to use this incredibly common and popular technologies to save lives and to help people," he said.

As a volunteer member of the Coast Guard, Bank does not get paid for the month of work he has put in so far. But he leads a growing operation that includes Haitian translators working from computers around the country, and a system to forward information to military and civilian aid crews in Haiti.

"We go through the State Department, USAID, and other agencies who are coordinating where aid goes. If it's an urban search and rescue team that needs to be dispatched, if it's MedEvac. There are a lot of resources we can call on," said Bank.

In the days after the quake, the United States also teamed with Haitian cell phone providers to dedicate a special number to receive text messages from Haitians in need. Haitians now can send a text to 4636 to ask for food and water, or to report the location of injured people.

As the recovery effort has evolved, reports of people trapped in rubble has dropped off, and more people are asking for relief supplies or reporting large groups of people in need.

In the past week, Bank received a puzzling series of text messages that suggested about 3,000 people had gathered in an area outside of Port-au-Prince. When the Haitian translators called some of the people, Bank said they confirmed the information and forwarded the details for aid crews to respond.

"These people said they were dying left and right of starvation, disease, other injuries. It's preliminary at this point, so we don't know all of the outcome [of relief efforts], but do know there is one," he said.

The traditional mission of the Coast Guard has been to find and rescue people in need, but the method Bank uses is only possible through the latest technology. Cell phones with text and Internet features are cheap and available to many Haitians. Internet tools allow Haitian translators to work from almost anywhere, processing information as quickly as possible. And rescuers can access online maps of Port-au-Prince to pinpoint the location of people in need.

Bank says the Coast Guard and aid agencies are still exploring ways to use the technology. "We're all trying to figure out what can we do with this. It's exciting to see where we go as it moves into a long-term recovery operation. And what can we do with this for the next disaster," he said.

He says one possibility is to begin processing other reports from Haitians to pass on to aid groups and other non-governmental organizations working on relief operations.

You May Like

Photogallery Oxfam: Ebola Could Be 'Disaster of Our Generation'

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba, says the Caribbean island nation will 'gladly cooperate' with the US in the fight against Ebola in West Africa More

Multimedia Kobani Fighting Sends 400,000 Refugees to Turkey

Refugees receive help from Turkish authorities and individuals, but say much more is needed More

India’s Ruling Nationalist Party Makes Gains in Regional Elections

Bharatiya Janata Party’s huge margin over its rivals puts it on course to form governments in the northern Haryana and western Maharashtra states More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fighti
X
Zana Omer
October 18, 2014 6:37 PM
The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Syrian Defector Leaks Shocking Photos of Torture Victims

Shocking photographs purporting to show Syrian torture victims are on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The museum says the graphic images are among thousands of photographs recently smuggled out of Syria by a military policeman-turned-defector. As VOA reporter Julie Taboh reports, the museum says the photos provide further evidence of atrocities committed by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against its own people.
Video

Video Drought-Stricken California Considers Upgrading Water System

A three-year drought in California is causing a water shortage that is being felt on farms and cities throughout the state. As VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports, water experts, consumers and farmers say California needs to make changes to cope with an uncertain future.
Video

Video TechShop Puts High-tech Dreams Within Reach

Square, a business app and card reader, makes it possible to do credit card transactions through cell phones. But what made Square possible? VOA’s Adrianna Zhang and Enming Liu have the answer.
Video

Video Church for Atheists Goes Global

Atheists, by definition, do not believe in God. So they should have no need of a church. But two years ago, a pair of British stand-up comedians decided to create one. Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans told the BBC they envisioned “something like church but without God". Their “Sunday Assembly” movement has grown from a single congregation in London to dozens of churches around the world. Reporter Mike Osborne visited with the members of a Sunday Assembly that now meets regularly in Nashville.
Video

Video Robot Locates Unexploded Underwater Mines

Many educators believe that hands-on experience is the best way to learn. Proving that the method works is a project developed by a group of students at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey. They rose up to a challenge posted by the U.S. Department of Defense and successfully designed and built an underwater robot for locating submerged unexploded ordnance. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's JFK Hospital Reopens After Temporary Ebola Exposure

JFK Hospital is Liberia’s largest and one of its oldest medical facilities. The hospital had to close temporarily following the deaths of two leading doctors from Ebola. It is now getting back on its feet, with the maternity ward being the first section to reopen. Benno Muchler has more for VOA News from Monrovia.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Expose Generation Gap

Most of the tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are students seeking democracy. Idealistic youths say while the older generation worries about the present, they are fighting for the territory's future. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Hong Kong.
Video

Video Liberians Living in US Struggle From Afar as Ebola Ravages Homeland

More than 8,000 Liberians live in New York City, more than in any other city outside of Liberia itself. As VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports, with the Ebola virus ravaging their homeland, there is no peace of mind for these New Yorkers.
Video

Video Kurds See War-Ravaged Kobani As Political, Emotional Heartland

Intense fighting is continuing between Islamic State militants -- also known as ISIS or ISIL -- and Kurdish forces around the Syrian town of Kobani, on the Turkish border. The U.S. said it carried out at least nine airstrikes against Islamic State positions Friday. Meanwhile the U.N. has warned that hundreds of civilians would be massacred if the town falls to the militants. Henry Ridgwell looks at the strategic significance of the city.

All About America

AppleAndroid

More Americas News

Polls: Opposition Has Slight Lead in Brazil Presidential Runoff

However, business-favorite candidate Aecio Neves is struggling to retain momentum that gave him a slight advantage over Dilma Rousseff in recent polls
More

Photogallery Oxfam: Ebola Could Be 'Disaster of Our Generation'

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba, says the Caribbean island nation will 'gladly cooperate' with the US in the fight against Ebola in West Africa
More

Video Miami Woman Serves as Guardian to Children of Immigrants

In 2013, administration deported 240,000 undocumented immigrants, many leaving behind children born in US; Nora Sandigo has helped nearly 1,000 of them
More

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Researcher says converting Latinas see Islam as positive; 'Koran becomes this guidebook that tells you exactly what to wear, what to eat, how to wash, how to behave, when to pray”
More

Hurricane Gonzalo Pummels Bermuda

Hurricane scores direct hit Friday night into Saturday, but causes no deaths and only minor injuries
More

Thousands March in Mexico Over Feared Student Massacre

Protesters in Acapulco demand answers about fate of 43 missing trainee teachers, who authorities fear were killed by police in league with gang members
More