It was the day after the earthquake in Haiti and Stéphane Bruno, a Haitian IT consultant, by chance noticed an SOS message appear on the Facebook widget on his Android phone.
"I would never have thought of going to Facebook in the middle of this chaos," he said in an interview. He had been working most of the night, helping to rescue members of his wife's family who had been trapped in the rubble.
But since he has the Facebook widget on the home screen of his phone, he happened to see a status update that a friend had posted, relaying an SOS message from three people who were trapped and needed help.
Bruno had already been in contact with Steve Huter, a friend in Oregon who worked with him earlier in the year to build Haiti's Internet Exchange Point. Huter, a project manager at the Network Startup Resource Center, was remotely helping to check on the health of Haiti's Internet backbone.
Bruno decided to text Huter about the three people who were trapped.
As luck would have it, Huter had recently been contacted by the U.S. State Department to help out with a project assisting Haiti in developing its wireless spectrum policies.
"Through that I had some good relationships with key people at State," Huter said. "When Stéphane sent me the message, my first instinct was to call them." Huter reached one of his contacts at the State Department on his cell phone and explained the situation. His contact said the U.S. Marines were just setting up at the Port-Au-Prince airport and might be able to help.
Bruno collected more details about where the trapped people were and sent it to Huter, who relayed the information to his contact at the State Department, who in turn forwarded it to the Marines on the ground.
Thus began a circuitous chain of text and e-mail messages, originating with trapped and injured people in Haiti, passing through several hands in the U.S. and ultimately reaching Marines on the ground in the earthquake-torn country.
Huter asked his contact at the State Department if the three people from the Facebook message were rescued. "I wanted to know, should we pursue this further." His contact told him the three people had been rescued, and told him to send any further information he received about trapped survivors.
With that, Bruno put out the word to friends and colleagues that if they knew anyone in need of help, he might be able to assist. He changed his Facebook status to tell anyone he knew to forward him messages about people in trouble.
Rather than struggling to locate injured people, the Marines were happy to receive targeted information about people in need of help, Huter said. "In the beginning phase, there was so much chaos trying to figure out where to go. By having a clear target it turned out to be useful."
The next day in Oregon, which is three hours behind Haiti, Huter woke to his phone going off at 4 a.m. For the next four or five days he put in long days, getting up with the first messages reaching his phone. "I'd wake up not quite ready to get up but thinking, 'Wow, this could be people who are trapped,'" he said.
Over those days, Bruno and Huter figure they forwarded some 25 messages to the State Department and on to the Marines on the ground. In some cases, people replied to Bruno to say they'd been rescued. Other times, the Marines reached a location to find the people had been freed by other workers. Sometimes they arrived too late.
"This is by no means a well thought out emergency response system, but this ad-hoc system actually saved a few lives," Bruno wrote on his blog.
The earthquake showed how vital communications technologies can be. "The right to communicate doesn't only relate to the freedom of expression, but also to the actual survival of human beings," he wrote.