Francesca Garrett is a Psychology student in New Haven, CT. When she isn’t translating SMS messages (or in the chat room as AnyaPetrova), she writes for Mission 4636, and serves as Resource Coordinator for the Translation Team and Fletcher School Situation Room. She can be reached at francesca.garrett@gmail.com

Valérie-Ann Nathalie Michel was a vibrant 34 year old working in Port au Prince as a Bank Manager. She was known locally for her love of photography, and most days could be found at the National Palace, camera in hand. She held daily prayer groups in her home and sang with her family, joking that the Michels would be the next big music crew. Then the January 12 earthquake struck, and Danielle was buried beneath the rubble.

Daniele One

Your browser may not support display of this image.In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, a talented team of programmers, designers, and volunteers launched a free phone number, 4636, allowing Haitian survivors to send requests for aid along with a location, name, and phone number. Ushahidi Inc., an open source project which allows users to crowdsource crisis information, launched http://haiti.ushahidi.com, and began tracking the requests in partnership with the U.S. Department of State, InSTEDD, Thomson-Reuters, Digicel, Voila /Comcel, and countless others. There was just one problem: the messages were in Creole.

Now it’s January 20th, and Nathalie’s brother, Fred Michel, sits at his computer entering GPS coordinates. His shoulders shake a little as he remembers the depth of his loss. On his screen, a chorus on digital voices rush to comfort him. “Respe Nathalie,” “We remember Nathalie.” Fred is logged into the Mission 4636 Translation site, and tonight most of us are working in his sister’s memory.

Mission 4636 is the first stop for the emergency SMS messages from the ground in Haiti. Before they can be sent to Ushahidi teams around the world for triage and dispersal, our translators must first decode the heartbreaking requests, always in the same polite tone despite their desperation.

I first stumbled in the Mission 4636 Chat Room (where translators ask for assistance with slang or landmark identification) a week ago. I’ve hardly logged off since. Like many in the group, my computer follows me into the kitchen while I cook, and stays inches from my head as I nap. We often joke about the addiction, and members typically say goodnight half a dozen times, unwilling to leave the message queue unmanned.

In the early days, we would call the families of missing survivors who had sent us messages, “Mwen vivan!” “I’m alive! Please tell my family.” These days the conversions still move easily from grief to elation (“Mwen pa rive sove lavil”….”I couldn’t save her”…”I just saw my first ultrasound – it’s a girl!”), but are more often focused on improving our geo-mapping skills and on the future.

A constant stream of support runs between friends who have never met. Sarah Bernard (UHSarahB) has translated our instructions page into three different languages, widening our volunteer base. Sebastian (Sea Bass) somehow finds hours each day (despite two young children and a very pregnant wife) to find much needed improvements in our technology. Another user, Sxpert has created a code that automatically pulls the trickier coordinates from our conversations, and logs the locations in a spreadsheet I created. The goal? Accuracy.

And it’s working. Two days ago a young woman in Haiti went into labor. She was bleeding out and her life was in danger. She texted 4636. Across the world, one of our translators pinpointed her location on a map. The US Coast Guard would later tell us that the latitude and longitude provided were accurate to 5 decimal points.

We’re making a difference in Haiti. But sometimes, when morale lags at 3:00am, we need to be reminded that we are making a difference in the lives of the people we work with as well.

    “I just wanted to say,” began a recent email of encouragement from volunteer / survivor Anna F., “that what you’re doing is one of the few bright lights in an otherwise almost unendurable tragedy. If there is any comfort in all of this horror, it is seeing clear evidence that just as people can be utterly corrupt, malign, & self-centered, they can also be extraordinarily smart, inventive, resourceful & generous. Among the ways you’ve helped this week, you’ve also helped by reminding me of this. If I could, I’d work with you all day…it’s the only thing that really makes sense to me right now.
    I’d say ‘God bless you,’ but like everyone else, I’m having a few God-issues right now. If He’s there and paying any attention, I hope He understands what He’s doing better than I can, and I hope He blesses you. Failing that, I just wish you luck.”

We are the volunteer translators of Mission 4636. We span six time zones and seven languages on any given night. We are students, medics, stay at home mothers, archivists, firefighters, and software developers. We are the quiet force behind Ushahidi Haiti & we give a voice to the lost.