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

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month More

At 91, Marvel Creator Stan Lee Continues to Expand his Universe

Company's chief emeritus hopes to interest new generation of children in superheroes of all shapes and sizes by publishing content across multiple media platforms More

Photogallery New Drug Protects Against Virus in Ebola Family

Study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is first looking at drug's effectiveness after onset of symptoms 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.
African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebolai
X
George Putic
August 20, 2014 8:57 PM
While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls For Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid

More Americas News

Brazil Presidential Race Gets One More Candidate

Environmentalist Marina Silva to join contest for Socialist Party candidate; vote to be held October 5
More

Guatemalan General Killed in Copter Crash Near Mexico Border

General Rudy Ortiz was among five people killed; cause under investigation; weather said to have been possible factor
More

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month
More

Pope's Relatives Killed in Argentina Car Crash

Family of pontiff's nephew killed after car plows into truck
More

Ex-Guatemalan Drug Kingpin Pleads Guilty to US Charges

Waldemar Lorenzana Lima, linked by authorities to Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, pleaded guilty to conspiring to import more than 450 kilograms of Colombian cocaine into US
More

Landmark Brazil Poll Brings Good News for Rousseff

Facing tough road to re-election, Rousseff has seen sharp recovery in approval ratings, voter support
More