We Are The Volunteers of Mission 4636

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.

20 Responses to “We Are The Volunteers of Mission 4636”

  1. Jenn S-P

    Great article, @Anya! I am so honoured and proud to be part (albeit a small part) of such a wonderful, dedicated team. Thank you for allowing all of us volunteers to help this great cause!

  2. My name is Ronny and I am a volunteer translator for Ushahidi since day 2 or 3 of this earthquake. I too stumbled across this website, when I was desperately looking for a way to help out the people and island of Haiti. Since I am fluent in French and knew some creole, this was a great avenue to use my skills and help out many people. I first started translating the French and the creole like everyone else and making sure the coordinates would be there for the help on the ground. Most of the messages I translated were for food, water, missing people, trapped people, and people who needed medical attention. I have to say it was very surreal knowing that desperate people were out there counting on us to help them. I slept maybe three four hours a night the first week of the quake, because I was so busy on line translating and I felt so guilty that I had food in my fridge, a bed to sleep on, and family members that were safe. Doing this job, was the best I can do to help the Haitian people without being on the ground (which I desperately wanted to).
    We then started transferring names of missing people from the CNN website to the Google Missing People site. I do have to say this was very emotional and draining for me, because we actually saw pictures of loved ones with desperate please from their families. I did call several of the families in the US that had loved ones missing in Haiti. Most of the families that I spoke to found their loved ones, but did not update the site that they were found. I updated the sites for these people and they were so honored and appreciative of what i was doing to help the people of Haiti. I also texted many people in Haiti who used our text service and received a few responses. I met a family that left Port-au-Prince when their home was destroyed. The family lost their father, and all moved to the countryside and leave the chaos of Port au prince behind. I have been in constant contact with them and actually sent them some money via Western Union to help their family out. They were very grateful and appreciative of what I was doing to help out their people.
    I have met so many nice people on this site, and we are like a big family now. Robert, Giscard, Ronald, Fiona, Aline, Fred, Sarah, Jimy, Sabastien, and many others. I love you guys so much. You are such wonderful humanitarians and God’s Angels. Respe toujours….Nathalie…Je pense a toi souvent!! Toujours dans mon coeur!

  3. We all need to do as much as possible to help Haiti. I am writing a book about Haiti after the earthquake. All earnings will support Haitian relief, which will be a long-term need. Please send me stories of your experiences, particularly as translators. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  4. We all need to do as much as possible to help Haiti. I am writing a book about Haiti after the earthquake. All earnings will support Haitian relief, a long-term need. Please send me stories of your experiences, particularly as translators. Thank you, thank you, thank you! druf@juno.com

  5. wow, a very powerful and moving post. most of us are so far removed from the catastrophe and don’t realize what an amazing job you guys are doing!

    Thanks, Francesca, for this insight story!

    With love,


  6. This is such a vital mission. In our region, bush fires and earthquakes are very frequent. A dear friend of mine is a firefighter and he shares what it is like to be so close to the action. Thanks guys for all you do.

  7. This is a great movement. In these difficult times, we all need to help each other. You really don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow so everyone should take part.

  8. Andrew Birya

    good job guys, but how can i help? i want to offer a helping hand and volunteer. is that possible?