In Haiti’s Hour of Need, Texting “4636” Became a Lifeline
A boy uses a cell phone in Leogane, Haiti, January 20. The helicopter is transporting aid sent to the countryside.
Washington — Within hours of the earthquake that crushed Port-au-Prince
January 12, Haitians in peril could send text messages for help over cell phones
to a newly created emergency response number, 4636. It was the rough
equivalent of the 911 emergency response number in the United States —
and literally was set up overnight.
Utilizing Ushahidi — a Web portal
born in 2008 to help citizen activists track post-election violence in Kenya —
volunteers around the world who speak French and Creole translated
thousands of messages, mapped where the calls came from and directed the
most urgent pleas to the U.S. Coast Guard,
the Red Cross and other relief and rescue agencies.
Against the enormous scale of suffering and loss in Haiti, and the
bottlenecks in delivering food and medicine to survivors, this seems
like a modest triumph. It could become the model for tapping digital
technology — from mobile phones to creative software and social
networking applications — to speed help in future catastrophes.
A social media innovator at the State Department,
a Swiss graduate student in Boston, a recent Stanford University
graduate who devised a low-cost way for hospitals in Africa to text
message HIV patients in remote villages, and an engineer for Haiti’s
biggest wireless company each played a role in the rapid rollout of the
rescue channel for Haiti. Others contributed ideas in chats on
Skype, which allows phone calls and conferences anywhere in the world
over the Internet.
It was a marriage of public- and private-sector workers, of social
activists and computer experts who know how to get things done without
delay. It helped that the core group has friends in high places. Five
nights before the earthquake, Secretary of State
Clinton had brought technology leaders to the State
Department for a dinner discussion of how best to use the Internet,
social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, text messaging and
other tools to advance democracy and development around the world.
MAPPING CALLS FOR HELP
Patrick Meier, an international consultant and doctoral degree
candidate at Tufts University,
learned of the quake when he turned on the evening news January 12.
Meier is part of the core team of Ushahidi. Meier, who is Swiss, called
David Kobia, Ushahidi’s director of technology development. Within an
hour or so, Kobia had built a basic version of the Help for Haiti
platform on the Web.
In Washington, Josh
Nesbit, who helped build a text-messaging service for a hospital in Malawi
while an undergraduate at Stanford University, began looking for ways
to do the same in Port-au-Prince. Nesbit knew that several
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Haiti had downloaded the open source
software called FrontlineSMS:Medic. He sent out a
“tweet” — a message on Twitter — on January 13 hoping to find Frontline
users who could establish a hub for Short Message
Service (SMS) communications.
Someone in Cameroon
replied that he should get in touch with Jean-Marc Castera, an engineer
for Digicel, the largest wireless company in Haiti, who was en route to
the company’s command center in Port-au-Prince. “By the time he got
there, we were Skyping,” said Nesbit.
A screenshot shows locations of Haitian Creole volunteers who have translated 40,000 messages.
Nesbit also exchanged e-mails with Alec Ross, the State Department’s senior adviser for innovation. “I told him I was
working on setting up an SMS channel, and he said, ‘Well, you should be
talking to Katie Stanton. She’s heading that up at the State
is a former Google
executive who left to join the Obama
administration. Working with James Eberhard, the founder of Mobile
Accord, which allows charities to collect donations by text messages,
she got the “Text Haiti to 90999” fundraising campaign rolling on the night
of the earthquake. Over the next three weeks, text
messages raised an unprecedented $37 million for the Red Cross for
Now, Skyping with Nesbit and others, Stanton threw the State
Department’s support behind the effort to create a 911 rescue number for
Rather than build a communications hub allowing NGOs to text each
other, they set up a “short code” — a four- or five-digit number — that
anyone in Haiti could text for free. Castera found an existing short
code — 4636 — for gathering weather reports in Haiti. It was
little-used, and the company that owned it “decided it was just fine
that we use it,” said Nesbit. Now they needed to build the capacity to
respond to the cries for help.
“We created a logistics group on Skype Chat, pulling together people
from four or five organizations to think through how to turn this into a
useful channel,” said Nesbit.
They linked the messages to Ushahidi. In Boston, Meier enlisted help
from Tufts students and from the Haitian diaspora community to
translate messages from French and Creole and direct them to rescue
workers in Haiti. Volunteers in Boston and in other cities created maps,
first using Google Maps and later OpenStreetMap, a crowd-sourcing tool
that operates like Wikipedia, to pinpoint exactly where help was needed.
Open source software developed by the
nonprofit organization inSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies,
Diseases and Disasters) was used to smooth the flow of information
pouring in to relief agencies, not just from text messages but from news
reports, Twitter and other information channels.
The U.S. Coast Guard deployed its own social media team to deal with
this flood of information. “It’s like taking a sip from a fire hose,”
said Ryan Bank, a Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteer from Chicago who
devised a system for finding those in the most dire circumstances. The
Coast Guard brought Bank, who consults with video companies, to Miami
to work full-time with its social media team.
Meier is headed soon to Geneva to talk with International Red Cross
officials about how to prepare “a Ushahidi-type deployment” for the next
Likely, he’ll have help. “We have 4.6 billion mobile phones on the
planet. We need to use them for good,” Stanton said.