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How an Android Phone and Facebook Helped Route Haiti Rescuers 114

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the creative-use-of-pervasive-tech dept.
One intrepid Android fan is extolling the virtues of the open smartphone platform that helped him to route SOS messages in the recent Haiti disaster. "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 US 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 US 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 US 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 coming.'"
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How an Android Phone and Facebook Helped Route Haiti Rescuers

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  • by Gri3v3r (1736820) on Monday February 15, 2010 @07:20PM (#31150208)
    First time,Facebook was proved useful...Hope more can get help like that.What a disaster really...
    • Really? RTFS, I thought they just used a 'flashlight' app on the Android phone, and were waving it in the air to direct people...

    • Facebook also gives relatively hopeless people something to do and something to look forward to...

      (This post does not assume the majority of facebook users. I have to disclaim this because I know someone would assume I am implying that.)

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Jamonek (1398691)

      First time,Facebook was proved useful...Hope more can get help like that.What a disaster really...

      I wouldn't say the first time it has been proven useful. There was also an article of facebook being used to help save a little girl? from a sewer over in Austrailia. Give me some time and I can find it.

    • What a disaster really...

      I don't think that right now is the time to criticize Facebook...oh, wait...

    • Re:Internet saves (Score:5, Informative)

      by iamhassi (659463) on Monday February 15, 2010 @08:58PM (#31150970) Journal
      "First time,Facebook was proved useful...."

      Wrong [abc.net.au]

      But just like that story, if they have access to facebook why not just call the police?
      • by antek9 (305362)
        Maybe they were geeks like Moss from the IT Crowd who'd rather send out an e-mail to the fire department [youtube.com] than make themselves understood on the phone?
      • Not a joke (Score:3, Informative)

        by steveha (103154)

        if they have access to facebook why not just call the police?

        It's perfectly understandable that you would ask such a question. To find the answer you would have to do something incredibly difficult and unusual, such as RTFA [blogspot.com].

        But I'll help you out. Here's the relevant part of TFA:

        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. Ho

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          In the UK, they now accept SMSs to the emergency services, it's mainly marketed at people with disabilities and you have to register your phone here [emergencysms.org.uk], I have my phone registered, but luckily haven't had to use it yet!
  • Technology (Score:2, Interesting)

    by UndyingShadow (867720)
    Technology is so fucking cool. I really love it when people do amazing things like this and prove how useful it all is.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 15, 2010 @07:25PM (#31150236)

    This is the now obligatory web 2.0 platform saves the day story. The last one was twitter I believe.

    • by Narcocide (102829)

      It's not a total waste of time. All this technology we spend so much money on has a strong tendency (as you seem to have clearly noticed) to be largely frivolous. At times when it proves to also have practical value it is good to point it out because maybe it will help future developments to be less frivolous.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Brian Gordon (987471)

        email would have worked just as well.

        • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          I typically agree with that statement, but I don't think it applies here. There are several problems with in email in this case. The person would have to load the email application, select who to send it to (or a group), type the message, and hope that one of the recipients would know how to help.

          A Facebook update has many of the same properties, except it is broadcast to all friends of the person automatically. That is a much larger pool of people who would know what to do or who to contact.

          I suppose, i

          • I suppose, in networking terms, it is a broadcast message instead of unicast or multicast.

            In that case, a blog and an RSS reader would've accomplished the same thing.

          • I typically agree with that statement, but I don't think it applies here. There are several problems with in email in this case. The person would have to load the email application, select who to send it to (or a group), type the message, and hope that one of the recipients would know how to help.

            A Facebook update has many of the same properties, except it is broadcast to all friends of the person automatically. That is a much larger pool of people who would know what to do or who to contact.

            I suppose, in networking terms, it is a broadcast message instead of unicast or multicast. And an SOS should really be a broadcast message. So, I think it is an correct use of the medium.

            Ugggh..

            A long, long time ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth... high priests used "directory services" to communicate with the public and spread their message. Legend has it that common folk would even use them to hunt for potential mates. Lists of people they communicated with frequently were recorded on stone Buddy Lists. We also know from fossil records that large groups of netizens would congregate in "chat rooms" and discuss named topics. The impressive stone Buddy List is comparable to cel

  • by atfrase (879806) on Monday February 15, 2010 @07:44PM (#31150404)

    This is an amazing story, and everyone involved deserves all honor and appreciation for their life-saving efforts.

    Nonetheless, it raises the question: how can we leverage technology to achieve this kind of effect without requiring a friend-of-a-friend with a direct line to the US State Department?

    There were no doubt many other people trapped by the quake who didn't have such fortuitous Facebook connections, and many of them probably weren't found in time. Is there a way to deploy some kind of SMS-based 911 infrastructure in situations like this, even on foreign cellular networks? Could we even deploy our own mobile cellular base stations for this purpose, if the local cell network is too badly damaged? Other ideas?

    • by TubeSteak (669689) on Monday February 15, 2010 @09:08PM (#31151022) Journal

      Could we even deploy our own mobile cellular base stations for this purpose, if the local cell network is too badly damaged?

      Portable cell towers are regularly brought in wherever large crowds are expected to gather.
      It's basically a trailer/truck with a generator, cell antenna, and microwave/satellite/wired link to the telco.
      The problem of course, is prepositioning such hardware in locations where it is within reach of the disaster area.
      Then you have to get it where it's needed, which isn't so simple in the aftermath of a quake.

    • I was directly involved with the relief efforts, coordinating with USAID, US State Department, UN Logistics Cluster, Office of the Special Envoy, and others. The tool we did all use was an open source project called Ushahidi (haiti.ushahidi.org). Official agencies and average people with cell phones alike were able to submit situation reports, relief requests, and donations via SMS to their crisis-mapping/crowdsourcing tool. Each report was geo-tagged and mapped. The US Marines stationed in the USS Bata

      • I never heard of Ushahidi before. But from Phoenix666's description and the website (Ushahidi.com) it seems like it would be much more valuable than facebook if people know about it.
      • The solution is called ham radio.

        • The problem with HAM radio is its general availability.

          Not a lot of persons own HAM equipment and have the proper training/license to be able to use it.
          The rescuers *could* bring their own along with they own trained personal and use it to coordinate themselves. But the general population won't be able to use it.

          Whereas nowadays it seems like every single person, every kid and every grand-ma, has a cellphone.
          Even more so in developing/underdeveloped countries where the traditional land-line phone is so old/

    • by Tetard (202140)

      As pointed out elsewhere, Android just happened to be what the author had in his pocket at the time. Of course, a lot of factors made it possible. What's very inspiring about this is the amount of work that was done, without any prompting or formal coordination from any "official authorities". The people on the ground, together with their friends and colleagues from around the world (Google, http://www.nsrc.org/, http://www.afnic.fr/, http://www.pch.net/, US State Department, etc...) made it happen. To

  • by ickleberry (864871) <web@pineapple.vg> on Monday February 15, 2010 @07:51PM (#31150476) Homepage
    Because if they used any other protocol that doesn't involve sending huge amounts of redudant text and shiny graphics over a commercial telephone network it would never make the news.

    Personally I'd find it much more amazing if some radio hobbyists managed to repair a transmitter from bits of scrap salvaged from the rubble and sent out a packet using that but we'd never hear about it because FB and Twitter were not involved
    • Well go do it. Amaze us all.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by TapeCutter (624760) *
      It would never work, just before the proffesor sends the SOS message Gilligan will trip over the delicate instrument and ruin everything
    • Feel free to look up the amount of data sent to update Facebook statuses via the Facebook API on an Android smart phone. Its not much. Twitter would've worked too. Texting of course would not, since it's not broadcast.

  • FanBoid? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by L3370 (1421413) on Monday February 15, 2010 @08:00PM (#31150544)
    --"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 US military at the Port-au-Prince airport and dispatched to the search-and-rescue (SAR) teams being assembled. "

    Great, but just about any smartphone can do this, even most of the closed smartphone platforms, nothing special. Is it just me that thinks Android fans are becoming as preachy as the apple fanboys?

    FanBoids.
    • Re:FanBoid? (Score:4, Funny)

      by noidentity (188756) on Monday February 15, 2010 @08:14PM (#31150662)

      FanDroids

      There, fixed that for you.

    • by Mr2001 (90979) on Monday February 15, 2010 @08:31PM (#31150800) Homepage Journal

      Great, but just about any smartphone can do this, even most of the closed smartphone platforms, nothing special.

      The part you quoted, yes, but not the part that kicked the whole thing off: he noticed someone's Facebook status update on his home screen widget. If he had to open an app to get Facebook updates, he wouldn't have seen it, because he had better things to do than browse Facebook.

      I don't know about all the other smartphone platforms, but I'm pretty sure this is something the iPhone can't do. It doesn't have widgets; its home screen only shows app icons. You can get push notifications for certain events, but friends' status updates aren't among them, and you likely wouldn't want to get a message for every status update anyway.

      • by vux984 (928602)

        The part you quoted, yes, but not the part that kicked the whole thing off: he noticed someone's Facebook status update on his home screen widget.

        Correct. But the person trapped could have just as easily sent a text message to the people he's friends with instead of updating his facebook page and hoping someone would see the status update.

        I don't know about all the other smartphone platforms, but I'm pretty sure this is something the iPhone can't do. It doesn't have widgets; its home screen only shows app i

        • by mirix (1649853)
          Bingo. Lets get rid of 9-1-1, air raid sirens, vehicle backup alarms, police sirens, and warning buzzers; Just post on facebook instead.
        • by Dare nMc (468959)

          could have just as easily sent a text message to the people he's friends with instead

          but it is different, a text message isn't a broadcast to many medium, it is a send to one. Sounds like his friend did send a text message to 32665 that updated his FB status to all of his registered friends. At least with my phone (remember it wasn't started by the smart phone) I can send a text to one person at a time.
          It is important, few people thinks of the "oh what if i was stuck in a disaster with all the phone lines overloaded, I should setup a text message to all friends in advance." More of a, al

        • by Mr2001 (90979)

          So, I'm not quite sure how this widget works... does it beep every time someone updates so you know to look at it (if so, how utterly annoying), or was it just blind chance this guy happened to look at his phone at just the right time to see the sos on the widget.

          There's no beep, so it was blind chance.

          This isn't a story about how Facebook and Android are the future of emergency communications, it's just an interesting anecdote. In this particular case, Android played a key role in getting some people rescued. But you're right, in most situations it wouldn't have mattered.

        • Correct. But the person trapped could have just as easily sent a text message to the people he's friends with instead of updating his facebook page and hoping someone would see the status update.

          If you'd said twitter, I would've bought it, but texting EVERY person that MAY be able to help? That's awful redundant and subject to error isn't it? This is a broadcast request -- an SOS isn't meant to be sent to one person, its meant to be sent to anyone who'll listen.

          For that purpose, Twitter is excellent, Face

          • by vux984 (928602)

            If you'd said twitter, I would've bought it, but texting EVERY person that MAY be able to help? That's awful redundant and subject to error isn't it?

            yes. but its also more likely to reach people. your right, a broadcast SOS feature that sends a help message to all your contacts might be a cool feature. But twitter and facebook aren't that feature. That it worked out incidentally this one time is great, but its not a solution. Its not even the platform for a solution.

            I have both Twitter and Facebook statuses

            • I don't think either is perfect, but FYI my Twitter client stays at the last tweet I read until I scroll it. I can always "jump to top" to skip over the intervening tweets but that's beside the point.

        • by Rhaban (987410)

          The part you quoted, yes, but not the part that kicked the whole thing off: he noticed someone's Facebook status update on his home screen widget.

          Correct. But the person trapped could have just as easily sent a text message to the people he's friends with instead of updating his facebook page and hoping someone would see the status update.

          If you are in the middle of a disaster where you don't know anything about the situation outside the building that just collapsed on you, you'd want your message to reach a large number of people to be certain it can reach at least one person who can help you. You can only text a limited number of person and you never know if the message arrived, or if there is someone still alive to read it. With facebook you know you will reach people you would not have thought of, or whose phone number you don't have.
          I t

          • by vux984 (928602)

            You can only text a limited number of person and you never know if the message arrived, or if there is someone still alive to read it. With facebook you know you will reach people you would not have thought of, or whose phone number you don't have.

            Right. You could also get your message out by posting your SOS as a comment on news stories at cnn, fox, slashdot...

            You will reach potentially 10s of thousands of people you don't even know exist. And while many will write it off as a prank, a good message is not

      • by kapoios (1054802)

        The part you quoted, yes, but not the part that kicked the whole thing off: he noticed someone's Facebook status update on his home screen widget. If he had to open an app to get Facebook updates, he wouldn't have seen it, because he had better things to do than browse Facebook.

        Man, he has the Facebook app in his home screen... He sure hasn't better things to do.

        If he had, he would had put his corporate email, stocks, news, whatelse.

    • "Is it just me that thinks Android fans are becoming as preachy as the apple fanboys?"

      It might just be you. I work with lots of people that have both iPhones and other smart phones. No one is "preachy." I think the reason that people think that Mac fans are preachy is simply because people like to repeat that Mac fans are preachy.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by PopeRatzo (965947) *

      Great, but just about any smartphone can do this, even most of the closed smartphone platforms, nothing special. Is it just me that thinks Android fans are becoming as preachy as the apple fanboys?

      Of course this story could easily have been about someone who used their iPhone to do the same thing.

      However, the iPhone users lost their proprietary chargers and it was going to take over a week to get a new one.

      The Android user just had to plug in any old mini-USB cable.

      The point being, maybe this phone worked n

    • by tehcyder (746570)

      Is it just me that thinks Android fans are becoming as preachy as the apple fanboys?

      I don't think that's logically possible.

    • In summary: person that knows little to nothing of communications technology finds that communications technology is useful. I think this is more of a story for "Reader's Digest" -- not a self-proclaimed "News for Nerds" site.

  • by enaso1970 (759924)
    There's a lot of great disaster relief open-source stuff going on in Haiti. Check out Sahana for Haiti. Or the work done on the open street maps project for Port-au-Prince. The map was filled in with routing, street, building state, health facility etc. by some good developers who extracted satellite & other data in a few days; to the point where the marines could use it move trucks around the rubble. Like the 2008 Year of Edits for OSM but for one city in days.
  • http://www.terranet.se/ [terranet.se]

    Why are towers a necessity? Oh they might not be. Imagine a world of wide-band fractal antenna peer to peer devices and access points powered by a negotiated free market where you decide $/bit you pay and what provider latency and bandwidth you need.

    On a disaster related idea read "Rainbows End" by Vernor Vinge. When the shit hits the fan the military saturates the area with network access points dropped from the air to overwhelm enemy networks and provide infrastructure for their ope

  • What's the Android spin, that he happened to notice the message because of the app running on his home screen?

    • Yes, exactly that. If he'd had an iPhone, he wouldn't have seen the message without at least opening an app, and he'd have better things to do than check Facebook.

    • Exactly.

      FTA (emphasis mine):

      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.

      He was saying that due to the ability for Android phones to customize their L&F unlike other popular phones, he noticed his friend's update much sooner due to the widget automatically updating on his phones homepage.

      The widget updating itself on the homepage gave him immediate data and insight since Facebook wasn't an obvious choice to look for SOS from survivors. Other smart phones, people would have had to check their Facebook newsfeed which they only do every so often..

      • by argent (18001)

        And it happened that nobody else in the entire world was following any of these people on FB? OK, I could see that, but the real takeaway here is "check facebook and twitter for SOSes", not "make sure you have FB on your home page".

    • For people who don't get the custom desktop concept on Android, here's a sampling of people posting their desktops on Android phones [androidcommunity.com].

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This is out and outright fucking amazing.

    Consider, writing, on a piece of paper 'SOS' - despatching it to a messenger boy (possibly under rubble next to you), who takes it to the nearest train station that then relays it over morse code down the telegraph line, to be received in Cuba, relayed to Florida, then via numerous telegraph operators to Washington to get lost in tens (1x) of messages...

    Brand allegiances and political ideology aside - you gotta sometimes take you thumb out of your bum in awe of this.

  • by Savior_on_a_Stick (971781) <robertfranz@gmail.com> on Monday February 15, 2010 @10:19PM (#31151432)

    If the guy in Haiti had access to update his Fbook status, and was able to send and receive sms - why didn't he just contact the State Department directly?

    This story isn't about technology, it's about personal access.

    Guy in Haiti didn't have it - so he sends the equivalent of a smoke signal, and is lucky enough that someone notices it and does have access.

    This all sounds really contrived, and I'm not impressed.

  • by pongo000 (97357) on Monday February 15, 2010 @10:51PM (#31151634)

    ...and not just because of this story. But let's face it: Very little information (except early reports of the quake itself) was disseminated from Haiti via ham radio. 80% of the cellphone network of the second largest provider in Haiti was re-established within a week of the quake [wsj.com]. Don't believe me? Google "ham radio haiti". As a long-time amateur radio operator who has been proclaiming the demise of ham radio for some years now, the proof is irrefutable: Ham radio has been relegated to the technology basement.

    Yes, I know the hams will be coming out of the woodwork, defending their hobby. Or are they defending the large sums of money they've sunk into equipment that serves very little purpose in the way of emergency communications in today's world?

    • by acey72 (716552)
      Troll. Since when was ham radio all about providing disaster comms? It's about radio - the electronics of the transceivers, the physics of propagation, the engineering of masts and antenna (not to forget microwave transceivers, which seems as much to do with precision mechanical engineering as electronics) and add in the mix a bit of old-fashioned social interaction by talking with people. It's a hobby, nothing more, nothing less and as hobbies go, a pretty benign one at that. BTW - I'm not a ham, so no w
      • by pongo000 (97357)

        Troll. Since when was ham radio all about providing disaster comms?

        I'm sorry, you must have missed the memo [arrl.org].

        Ham radio has long been associated with disaster relief. In the early days (perhaps up through the 80s), ham radio operators were often the "first responders" in a crisis. I'm merely pointing out that this is no longer the case. Ironically, one of the reasons why this is true is one you bring up yourself: "It's all about radio." Unfortunately, ham radio has not kept up with technology (except for

    • We don't need to come out of the woodwork to acknowledge that in this given situation the twins of cheap transceivers and relatively cheap base antennas with back-haul the same, worked out. However if circumstances had been different (and they could) would you be proclaiming the demise of cellular? They both have their strong and weak points and neither was meant to supplant the other except for those betting on a particular horse.

    • There are couple of things that make Port-Au-Prince (PAP) unique.
      Haiti gets regularly hit by hurricanes. They have an abysmal electrical system.
      During normal times you are lucky to get 10 hours of electricity a day.
      There are 4 cell phone carriers, 30 percent of the population owns cell phones.
      If you are cell phone carrier, you always want to have 24 hours of operations.
      In order to do that in PAP you had to have a very robust generator - fuel supply system and distribution just to handle the "Haiti" normal d

  • At the risk of burning some Karma, and whoring our own FOSS disaster project... ;)

    If anyone is interested in being involved in a FOSS project for disasters, the Sahana Software Foundation is very interested in getting more developers involved in writing software to be used in disaster and emergency management. Sahana was created in Sri Lanka in early 2005 following the tsunami in late 2004. Since then Sahana has been deployed to a number of events in various countries (China, Peru, Philippines, Pakistan, In

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