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

French Refugee Drama Wins Cannes Top Prize

Dheepan is about a group of Sri Lankan refugees who pretend to be a family in order to flee their war-torn country for a housing project in France More

Photogallery Crisis in Macedonia Requires Meaningful and Swift Measures

The international community has called on Macedonian leadership to take concrete measures in support of democracy in order to exit the crisis More

Activists: IS Executes 217 Civilians, Soldiers Near Palmyra

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Sunday said the victims include nurses, women, children and Syrian government fighters 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.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs

More Americas News

Relatives Doubt 42 Men Died in Mexico Ranch Shootout

The lopsided death toll and photographs from the scene in which bodies appeared to have been moved have raised questions
More

Pope Beatifies Murdered Salvadoran Archbishop

Hundreds of thousands of worshippers converge on Salvadoran capital to witness papal declaration for late Oscar Romero - now one step from Roman Catholic sainthood
More

Scores Killed in Western Mexico Gunfight

Officials say almost every person killed in Michoacan state shootout was a suspected gang member
More

Latest US-Cuban Talks Ends in Washington

Both sides cite progress on restoring diplomatic ties, but no final agreement reached
More

Tutu Lends Support to Age Campaign

Help Age International has launched Action 2015 campaign
More

Colombia Kills 18 FARC Rebels

The bombing raid took place in the Cauca region of western Colombia
More