How People Used Technology to Help During the Boston Marathon Bombings

Yesterday’s terror in Boston was an awful reminder that we aren’t as safe as we thought. Someone managed to plant at least two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and reports indicate that among the dozens injured, three were killed, including an 8-year-old boy. (I personally had friends--parents of two young children--who were standing at that spot just 15 minutes or so before the explosion.)

But it could have been much, much worse; NBC News reported last night that the size of the “backpack bombs” could have delivered a payload that reached as far as 150 feet. As it was, the blast seemed limited to the sidewalk and immediate area, not even really reaching the street.

Not that the shortcomings of the (possibly amateur) bombmaker helps anyone to sleep any better at night. Instead, it’s a reminder of how vulnerable we are.

Boston Marathon
First responders, race volunteers, and bystanders helping after the Boston Marathon bombings
(Image credit: AP, via NBC News)

However, as many across the Internet have noted, events such as these can also highlight the good in many of us: the selflessness of those who immediately found a way to help administer first aid or scooped up little ones and the infirm and carried them to safety and the fearlessness of those who ran instinctively toward the blast site, including bystanders and the many medical personnel who had volunteered at the medical tent for the race.

We’ve all probably seen that Fred Rogers quote about “watching for the helpers” during frightening events posted here and there several dozen times since the bombs went off. The people on the street showed that “helpers” come in all shapes, sizes, and stripes, but there were also others helping out by using technology.

AT&T booth
Makeshift AT&T booth (Image credit: NBC News)

An NBC News photo shows a “makeshift AT&T booth” somewhere on the street in Boston where people could charge their phones while trying to get in touch with loved ones. It’s probable that the booth was already set up for the race as a charging station, but it remained up and running in the aftermath long enough for people to make those important calls.

Google quickly set up a Boston Marathon Explosions link on its Person Finder page so that people could post either information about someone they’re looking for or information about someone they found. The page also has information including a hotline for families of victims, a number for witnesses to report information to the Boston Police, and a link to the Red Cross Safe and Well page.

Google Person Finder

Area residents voluntarily opened their homes to the approximately half a million strangers that attended the marathon and were stuck in Boston, as public transit and several roads were closed. In a public Google Doc called “I have a place to offer--Boston Marathon explosion” people posted their name, number, email address, general location, and other pertinent information about what sort of lodging they could offer. Some even offered to drive to various locations and give people rides. The number of entries in the Google Doc is incredible; you can spend your entire afternoon scrolling down the page.

Place to offer

There were initially reports that cell networks in Boston were shut down, but that’s since been refuted; Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T officials claim (via numerous reports) they were not asked to shut down service. There were some blocked calls due to the heavy traffic, but in fact, it appears that the town’s cellular networks never went down, which is impressive and speaks to the big carriers’ preparation for a huge event and also the strength of the infrastructure they’ve built. It may also be partly due to the creativity and selfless actions of people who reportedly opened up their WiFi networks, removing any password protection so people nearby could use the Internet without jamming up the cell networks.

Further, much of the traffic that could have flooded those networks was also no doubt alleviated by people sending simple text messages instead of making voice calls and also posting their status on a social network such as Facebook or Twitter (which is actually what my friends did) so all of their loved ones could see that they were alright, or at least let them know if and where they ended up after needing treatment or being stranded.

In the aftermath, technology can still be of service. Law enforcement needs all the help it can get to identify the person(s) responsible for the bombings, and hundreds of people were shooting photos and video all day long with cell phones and more professional-level cameras at the finish line area. All that data should be able to help law enforcement get a better look at the crime scene from multiple angles and could lead to an arrest. In the future, it could also be used for training purposes, which would help law enforcement, anti-terrorist agencies, medical professionals, and first responders better learn how to prevent or react to any similar situations.

It’s easy to forget that technology isn’t just there to entertain us; it offers us tools and platforms through which we can help one another in difficult or frightening times. Kudos to those who used their technology to help in the midst of a horrible event, be it a monolith like Google or just a concerned neighbor from down the street with an available couch and an open WiFi network.