[AfrICANN-discuss] The tale of an Android phone in the earthquake in Haiti

Anne-Rachel Inné annerachel at gmail.com
Thu Feb 11 18:10:57 SAST 2010

For all those who know Stephane...amities et bon courage Stephane. nos
prieres vont avec toi et tous la bas.

Lundi 8 février 2010

The tale of an Android phone in the earthquake in Haiti

We talked extensively about why Android is better than some other
smartphone OSes, its openness, its multitasking characteristics, but
have you ever thought that its customization features could actually
save lives? Well read on.
As all of you probably know, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti in
the Caribbean on January 12 at about 4:53PM. It is estimated that
about 300.000 people died, making this catastrophe the deadliest one
since the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and the deadliest
earthquake since the 1976 one in China.
In the first few hours that followed the earthquake, mobile service
was completely disrupted. It was almost impossible to place a call,
due to the combination of the damages on the cellular networks and the
spike in phone calls. However, on some networks, SMS service was still
available. People stuck under rubbles started texting to their friends
and family (in Haiti and abroad) to tell them they were still alive
and needed help. In Haiti, on a population of 8 million, there were
about 4 million mobile phone subscribers. Those friends and family,
not knowing what to do, started posting these SOS messages on their
social networks, mainly on Facebook.
I happen to have an Android phone (the unlocked European version of
the HTC Hero) on one of the cellular networks that was still working
more or less, with a data plan. I was lucky enough not to be in the
situation of those people (although I spent the night rescuing members
of my wife’s family, at least those we could save… God save their
The morning after the earthquake, I was able to text, and I started
texting with Steven Huter, the Director of the Network Startup
Resource Center at the University of Oregon with whom I have been
working on Internet development projects, giving him instructions to
log into servers at a critical Internet facility in Haiti to verify
the status of Internet connectivity in the country. Fortunately, those
facilities were still live and the day after, Internet access was
restored on my phone.
Well, when you are in such a situation, you don’t really think about
going to Facebook, but it happens that I have a Facebook widget on my
Android home screen that regularly displays status updates from my
friends. All of a sudden, an SOS message appeared on my home screen as
a status update of a friend on my network. Not all smartphones allow
you to customize your home screen, let alone letting you put widgets
on it. So, I texted Steven about it.
As Steven had already been working with the U.S. State Department on
Internet development activities in Haiti, he quickly called a senior
staff member at the State Department and asked how to get help to the
people requesting it from Haiti. State Department personnel requested
a short description and a physical street address or GPS coordinates.
Via email and text messaging, I was able to relay this information
from Port-au-Prince to Steven in Oregon, who relayed it to the State
Department in Washington DC, and it was quickly forwarded to the U.S.
military at the Port-au-Prince airport and dispatched to the
search-and-rescue (SAR) teams being assembled. So the data went from
my Android phone to Oregon to Washington DC and then back to the U.S.
military command center at the Port-au-Prince airport. I was at first
a little skeptical about their reaction: there was so much
destruction; they probably already had their hands full. Unexpectedly,
they replied back saying: “We found them, and they are alive! Keep it
So, I started scouring Facebook to retrieve all those SOS messages,
telling people on mailing lists and on Facebook to forward all SOS
messages to me. At some point, in order to preserve my phone battery,
I instructed them to send all SOS messages directly to Steven. Some
people offered to help searching for SOS messages on the web (thanks
to all of them who are reading this article).
Hundreds of Haitians were saved from the rubbles by rescue workers. By
communicating information via my Android phone about trapped people to
search-and-rescue personnel, they had a clear target and were
therefore more efficient in going directly where there was a chance of
survival. They saved as many as they could, but of course, sometimes
they arrived too late.
This could be an article about Facebook, social networks, or even the
benefits of the Internet, and I intent to write others in that sense,
but in an Android audience, I wanted to address this angle
specifically. I never thought that a rather futile feature of the
Android OS would have had so much value as to save lives.
Publié par Stéphane Bruno à l'adresse 07:36

More information about the AfrICANN mailing list