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 coming."
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.