Archive for the ‘emergency information’ tag
This is the original text I submitted to The Box feature on Disaster Tech on Tuesday the 2nd of June, 2009. It is archived here for my records. It also includes some additional content that didn’t make it to the print edition.
On December 26, 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami killed over 35 thousand people and displaced over half a million people in Sri Lanka alone. A massive humanitarian crisis played out in numerous other countries also affected by the magnitude 9+ Great Sumatra-Andaman earthquake and resulting tsunami. Within days it became apparent that an information system was needed to manage the massive amounts of information being generated about who was doing what, and where – at one point there were approximately 1,100 registered NGO’s operating in Sri Lanka.
It was decided by a group of Sri Lankan IT professionals that a system needed to be built to better manage the information as they couldn’t find any existing free solutions that could be quickly deployed. Free, was critical, as they couldn’t afford any commercial solutions.
Sahana was implemented within a week by around four hundred IT volunteers, and it was named after the Sinhalese word for relief. Initially it provided tools for tracking missing persons, organisations involved in response, locations and details of camps set up in response to the tsunami, and a means of accepting requests for resources such as food, water and medicine.
Following the tsunami, the Swedish International Development Agency provided funding to take the lessons learnt from writing and deploying software during a disaster, and to rebuild Sahana from the ground up, and release it as free and open source software to the world. After all, Sri Lanka had needed an open and available system to manage disaster information, surely other countries should benefit from their experience?
Since 2005, Sahana has been officially deployed to earthquakes in Pakistan, Indonesia, China and Peru; a mudslide in the Philippines; and has been deployed in New York City as a preparedness measure to help manage storm evacuations.
Being free and open source software has been critical to Sahana’s success. The more accessible a system is, the more likely it is to be adopted, used and improved. Even in developed countries, many disaster agencies are poorly funded and often cannot justify significant expenditure on systems – commercial systems are too expensive. With pressure being applied to many public budgets, the significance of this is even greater now. Perhaps the greatest benefit of applying open source approaches is that it encourages a collaborative and communal approach to improving the system. As more countries with experience in disaster management contribute to its development, this will also act as a form of expertise transfer to countries that may not have as much experience with disasters.
Following Hurricane Katrina, there were nearly 50 websites created to track missing and displaced persons – all using different systems, all collecting duplicate information, and few of them sharing. Many of the potential benefits of the technology were lost due to a lack of co-ordination and massive replication of data. Access to tools such as Sahana will be more efficient as they can be deployed faster than solutions developed after an event occurs.
Normally, management involves a ‘leisurely’ process to collect as much information as possible, to then decide what actions should be taken. This is completely the opposite immediately following a disaster whereby decisions have to be made, sometimes with little or no information and no time to gather it.
A key benefit that IT can provide is in linking silos of information held by different organisations – everyone has a better shared picture of what has happened, what is occurring now, and what is planned.
Software, however, is just one aspect. There is a need for open data (such as maps and statistics) and standards to ensure that the multitude of systems can connect to each other and share information.
The most important aspect is having the relationships between organisations set up in advance of a disaster. This results in organisations having the confidence to connect their systems and share information. Without shared information the rest of the system will lose many potential benefits that IT can bring to disaster management.
Often, little or no information is available to support decision-making – emergency managers are forced to make complex decisions without having the luxury of all the required information.
A disaster can produce a massive number of tasks requiring hundreds of organisations and thousands of people to co-ordinate activity – meaning that there will always be some prioritisation needed. What should be done first? What can wait until later? How should an impacted community prioritise response and recovery with limited resources?
The benefits are not just limited to agencies and NGO’s. The next evolutionary step will be to adopt an approach called ‘crowd sourcing’ whereby members of the community are provided with tools to interact with each other and emergency managers.
This may be achieved with applications that run on mobile phones linking people and even submitting information from the field directly to Sahana servers. Imagine the situation where a passerby can take a georeferenced photo of some disaster damage, and if communications networks are working, send that directly to the system emergency managers are using to manage the event. There are a numberof efforts underway looking at how social networks and websites such as Facebook and Twitter can be utilised during a disaster.
Disaster IT is really a force multiplier. It won’t usually save lives, but it will allow a better shared understanding of the problems, and will lead to more effective and co-ordinated response. It allows those responding to an event, whether an organisation or individual, to quickly access information and better inform decision-making. This can lead to less suffering and a quicker recovery for affected communities.
Design for Disaster
Computer systems can often be fragile by their design – they are especially reliant upon power and communications. If any of these are lost during a disaster, the value of a system can quickly be lost if it has not been designed to operate in adverse environments. Here are some design decisions that are very important for disaster applications:
- Low bandwidth – we’ve all become accustomed to sucking bandwidth through massive broadband pipes, but during a disaster network connectivity for emergency managers may be limited to dialup speeds over satellite or digital radio connections. Disaster software needs to be designed for very efficient transfer of information, and should never assume vast quantities of bandwidth are available. At at extreme, some information may even be transferred by SMS or USB memory stick.
- Intermittent connectivity – during a disaster communications will likely fail multiple times before they are finally restored. This means that most ‘software as a service’ or web applications on the Internet will be of little use to emergency managers. Disaster software needs to be stored and run locally, and be able to work without a connection to the Internet.
- Synchronisation – one of the best techniques for designing around low bandwidth and intermittent connectivity, is to design a system to be able to synchronise information between two systems when communications are available. When communications later fail, both systems will have a copy of the same data, and can access it locally until communications are restored.
- Low power – power can, and will fail during a disaster, so disaster software needs to be designed to run on low power devices. Laptops and notebooks are good targets as they are self-contained, have built-in batteries, and can be charged from solar cells or generators. Large, power hungry servers can be difficult to move and support in a disaster environment.
How I became involved
One might ask how a Kiwi became involved in Sahana. Ever since training as a Civil Defence volunteer in the late 90′s, I had an interest in how information technology could be used to improve disaster management. The tsunami in 2004 acted as the catalyst for Sri Lankan computer programmers to produce Sahana. I have been volunteering with the project since 2005. In September 2005, he helped facilitate a workshop in Colombo that formed the basis for the current version of Sahana. In March this year he attended a Sahana conference and Board meeting in Sri Lanka. At the Board meeting the existing ‘owner’ of Sahana – the Lanka Software Foundation – agreed to hand the project over to the open source community. Gavin is a member of the transition Board that is in the process of forming an international non-profit foundation that can accept financial donations, and act as the ‘custodian’ of Sahana.
How you can help
There are numerous ways Sahana is looking for help. Once registered, we will be able to accept financial donations that will be used to fund development. In the meantime, we are looking for open source programmers with web development skills (including mapping). If you’re not a programmer, we are always looking for translators that can convert the english text and documentation into many different languages. Perhaps most importantly, we are looking for experienced emergency managers to help provide design advice to the Sahana community and guide the developers.
Microsoft recently released an invitation-only beta of Vine, a social networking application to allow people to share information with their networks, and receive news and public safety alerts for areas they are interested in. It appears to integrate with Twitter and Facebook, and allows you to post and receive information. Microsoft is targeting Vine as a tool for both routine and emergency use. It has just entered testing, but has some potential as a social networking tools for disasters. To ultimately be successful, it will need to run on Mac, Linux, and popular mobile phones such as Symbian, and the iPhone so we can carry it in our pockets. It also needs to interoperate with similar applications from other vendors, but most of all be free so that price does not dissuade adoption.
Update – I received an invite, but the current beta is really only keyed for US usage.
The issue of community-produced maps has reared its head on the IAEM email list today – closely linked to my post back on the 26th. The following issue was raised, and I wanted to share my reply to this.
Lack of citation was my major concern with the other available maps that have been in wide circulation. The second concern with the other maps is that they showed push-pins when they did not have or could not cite the data to support specific points.
My reply follows:
I think you’ll find that most of those maps do actually have references, in the case of the Google Maps mash-ups, they are contained in the hundreds of comments accessible from the same page as the maps. In fact, it is generally from the posting of these references in the comments, that the Google Maps get updated. What they have failed to to is to make it easier to reference the citations, by not including the reference in the popup bubble above the marker. But if you read through all the comments, you’ll likely find most of the citations there.
Another big failure is to create a timeline/history so that one can see the growth/change in numbers over time for each marker. Most of the maps are purely a snapshot of the here-and-now, and give no context via history.
The real point that emergency managers should take away from this is the following.
Agencies that ‘own’ the source information (e.g. CDC, WHO, and health agencies in every other country in this case), really should be publishing authoritative georeferenced data at the source. If agencies did this, then there would be no need for these ‘amateur’ cartographic efforts to hack together information from news, rumours and other sources. It would sure save a lot of time and effort in people trying to recreate information that already exists and either hasn’t been released, or has not been converted to a georeferenced format.
Likewise, it isn’t really the role of companies to provide this information. Once again, they are just filling a gap that we, as emergency managers, have failed to meet.
The mashup culture is a direct result of a failure by emergency managers to make information available in a form that end users clearly want it (as evidenced by the time and effort they will put into recreating the data in the form that they want to use it).
Perhaps we really should start thinking seriously about how we can produce authoritative information in formats that our communities want.
If you have a look at the example map I created in under an hour on the 26th, you’ll note that I created a little table in each popup for a marker that contained a link to the source article, and in the case of the San Diego marker, included daily figures for three days so it was possible to track the state of that marker over time.In addition, I scaled the marker images so that they were more proportional to the number of cases – a marker for each infection quickly produced an unreadable map, hence it seemed a better approach is to produce summary markers for each location, with the size of the marker indicating the numbers.
The real trick is going to be to produce a web application to track and manage this information, that can then export it in a suitable form to display the information as discussed above. This is clearly something we should look at for Sahana.
I visited the MetService website this afternoon to check on weather conditions and the rain radar for the country, and lo-and-behold it loaded a brief static forecast page with a couple of paragraphs at the top stating that the website had been overloaded and was experiencing increased loading.
I assume that the additional load was being generated by the warnings of bad weather in the North Island.
Anyway, a simple but brief point. This is not the first time the MetService website has gone down under the load of interest when our country’s weather looks like getting a little interesting. I would have thought by now that MetService would have realised that they should in fact have the capacity in place to provide information via their website – at a time when Kiwi’s are more looking to need it, e.g. when there is potential severe weather.
Reducing website functionality down to a simple static forecast during severe weather is entirely inappropriate.