Social media saves lives in Haiti

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Walter Shinn

Imagine being trapped or buried under a collapsed building for 24 hours, and the only lifeline is a cell phone which is about to die. The social media application is opened and a short call for help is sent hoping someone will see it and come to the rescue.

Seconds later, a Coast Guard Auxiliarist who monitors all distress content submitted via social media platforms from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, through a new media technology feed, sees the social media post and sends the message with a latitude and longitude to rescuers who race to the rescue.

Social media platforms, such as the Facebook application on a cell phone, are designed to reach a global audience by means of electronic communication using web-based technology.

Because of the monitoring tool created by Coast Guard Auxiliarist Ryan Bank, this form of user generated information, created and sent through Twitter, Facebook, text messages and other outlets, was received in America thereby helping search and rescue teams locate survivors in Port-au-Prince after the devastating earthquake January, 12, 2010. Social media may have never played a more important role than now in any major crisis in history.

Bank flew to Miami from Chicago and monitored the rapid flow of information content through a variety of new media tools and emerging technology. He was able to find content from people who were in distress in Haiti by monitoring and sorting their various posts. In turn, this information was passed to the Coast Guard and Department of Defense, enabling responders to locate people who needed help.

Sorting through the large amount of information, the search for finding someone in distress through the new media tools is similar to looking for your keys when you are late for work – big house, no time.

Social media has the characteristics of immediacy, accessibility, usability and combines them using mobile devices as a means of communicating information. This means that transmissions always reflect the current status of the world and enable anyone who sees the information to respond to an emergency. In the case of an emergency of unprecedented proportions, there is a lot of information to sort through.

Bank developed the concept of gathering information sent from Port-au-Prince via the Web and determined how the information could be used for search and rescue purposes.

“Basically I was sitting in my apartment trying to think of a way I could help and realized that data networks would be the first to be operable and we might be able to use social media first to communicate with survivors,” Bank said. “I didn’t even wait to see it on the news. I heard that it happened. I heard how devastating it was and I just immediately started trying to find ways that I could help.”

Bank knew that the phone towers might not be working but based on his experience he knew data towers would likely be up first. This gave him the opportunity to scan through the social media content that was beginning to be transmitted.

By instinct, Bank set up a social media monitoring system and was able to find information to process and send to the DoD and Department of State. Essentially, it was a web crawler or a modern age emergency contact list for distress content that was sent to first-responder agencies.

“After the earthquake, we needed a way to communicate with survivors in Haiti – and I found that way,” Bank wrote in an email to a Coast Guard captain, explaining what he had discovered.

He went on further to say, “Drawing on my social media experience both with the Coast Guard and private sector, I expected the data networks of Haiti’s mobile providers to be operational very soon after the disaster.”

Bank was betting that this would allow survivors to text message family as well as post on their social networks.

“I then set up a system at my home in Chicago that allowed me to monitor the major social media networks for reports of people in distress,” said Bank. “In the first day alone, we received hundreds of messages, many from survivors trapped in the rubble, which we then forwarded through the (Atlantic Area) Coast Guard command center.”

To get better information, a Distress Short Message System Short code number, 4636, was set up through the Department of State to allow those in Haiti to send in their distress messages via a text message. This number was then sent to every cell phone on the Haitian network.

After this process was established, Bank coordinated with several non-government organizations to help with translations and other services as he started to receive a live feed of the texts for help. These arrived at a rate of several per minute.

“Bringing in other Coast Guard Auxiliarist and civilian personnel, including Maurizio Vecchione, Ray Pages and Monica Leftwich at the Atlantic Area Public Affairs Watch, we were able to start filtering through the messages for the most urgent SAR situations,” said Bank. “All of these people worked day and night on their own time to help filter distress and aid message traffic.”

Bank and the volunteers worked continuously to track down each feed that stated someone was in distress, verified the information and passed it on to the command center. The person in distress may not know who to call in a major crisis situation. When people send the information through social media it expands the potential for people to be heard and rescued.

“The challenge in the whole process is that there is so much data to process and validate,” said Bank. “Utilizing cell phone GPS capabilities, we now receive most distress messages with a latitude and longitude along with the reporting party’s phone number allowing us to try to text or call back for more detailed information through interpreters linked in via Skype.”

Bank and the volunteers and the Coast Guard District Seven’s Joint Information Center monitored feeds and put as much useful information together as possible using all available sources of information including non-government organizations, publicly-available satellite imagery, contacts on the ground, and direct contact. The information was immediately forwarded to the Coast Guard District Seven command center and U.S. Agency for International Development Coordinators at U.S. Southern Command, as well as rescue dispatch teams in Port-au-Prince.

“Perhaps we will never know the true ramifications or benefits of these systems and the overall effort, but we do know that we have received over 3,500 text messages for help as of Friday, Jan. 22, 2010, and hundreds of thousands of social media posts,” Bank said. “We filtered and sent hundreds of requests for help or aid to unified response commanders.”

“Overall we were able to turn social media outlets that are so casually used on a daily basis by millions of people into a lifesaving tool,” said Bank. “Though we are still receiving a constant feed of distress and aid messages, moving forward I would highly recommend a full examination of the potential of this technology for future event and response requirements.”

Bank’s ultimate goal is to see this type of information processing implemented for every major response.

“The information process has never been used in this capacity before in saying that at the end of the day by using social media we may help save lives,” Bank said.

As of Monday, Feb. 1, 2010, Bank and other volunteers who helped search through distress feeds have scanned more than 250,000 feeds, 14,700 a day, since the earthquake.

“The hardest part is seeing and talking to so many people pleading for help and feeling that you almost can’t do enough,” said Bank.

Short biography on Ryan Bank
Bank owns and runs a new media company in Chicago and has worked with new technology in the social media arena for 10 years. He likes to take existing technologies and combine them to form new systems so they can be more effective. Professionally he works to develop new technology content with major brand companies, television producers and production companies. Bank volunteers in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the uniformed all-volunteer component of Team Coast Guard, and conducts public affairs for the Coast Guard with an emphasis in social media.

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  1. Valerie Pleasanton says:

    This is an awesome article pointing up both the value of new technology and of out-of-the-box thinking! May I reprint this article in our local flotilla newsletter?
    We are CGAUX FLotilla 54 in District 7.

    Regards, ~Valerie Pleasanton FSO-PB FL54

  2. cgnews says:

    Feel free to reprint anything you like from the site.

  3. Bill Montz, ADSO-MS 8WR, USCG AUX says:

    Any way you could give Bank my contact information? I would like to be able to use this system in future disasters and would like to discuss this with him. Thanks and SEMPER PARATUS!

    Bill Montz
    US Coast Guard Auxiliary

  4. cgnews says:

    Bill, We don’t have access to that information and, due to privacy rules, wouldn’t be able to give it to you if we did. HOWEVER, I’m sure if you were to Google “Ryan Bank” it wouldn’t be hard to find him since he owns a media company in Chicago.

  5. Marion says:

    What an awesome use of one’s talent! We salute Auxiliarist Bank and his heroic efforts! Great article–thank you Petty Officer Shinn!

  6. Barbara Sethmann SO-PB Dvi. 8 5th Dist.[SR] says:

    This is awesome. Okay to reprint in our Div. Newsletter?

  7. cgnews says:

    Feel free to republish.
    Thank you for your service in the Coast Guard Auxiliary. You guys are a very important part of Team Coast Guard.