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Taran on The World
Dawn Danby, 4 Jan 05

taranR_sm.jpg WorldChanger Taran Rampersad was on Public Radio International / BBC's The World today, talking about setting up an SMS-based alert retrieval cache, for coordinating immediate disaster relief and managing an event's aftermath. (You can hear the segment online, in .wma format, here.)

He wondered if there might be a way to automatically centralize text messages and then redistribute them to sources who might be able to help. Rampersad says, "imagine if an aid worker in the field spotted a need for water purification tablets, and had a central place to send a text message to that effect... He can message the server, so the server can send out an email message, and human - or machine - moderators can forward it to existing aid agencies so that they can get it out into the field."

Let me echo here Jamais' comments from last week - great work, and wonderful to hear your voice, Taran.

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Minutes after the tsunami hit, my uncle, an American engineer who works and travels in Southeast Asia, received a text message from a friend vacationing in Phuket, Thailand:

"Water is everywhere. Bodies floating everywhere you look. Next wave due in 10 minutes. Trying to get to higher ground. If we don't make and you never see me again, remember...I love ya man."

He made it to higherground and survived when so many did not.

What if even 50 people in Phuket had received SMS messages warning of the rising waters? What if only one had been a radio announcer?

There is also something in Taran's idea involving GPS and "tagging and labeling" coordinates to identify damage, danger or target-specific supply needs. Large, centralized maps with the metadata could be made available to all participating relief organizations.

Posted by: Peter Durand on 4 Jan 05

Well done, Taran!

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 4 Jan 05

Umm. I appreciate the warm thoughts and everything, but it wasn't all my idea. This is an idea that has evolved, as I recall, from some ideas in some Pacific Isles ICT papers that have been lieing dormant somewhere. It evolved further as Rohit Gupta, Suhit Anantula, myself and many others discussed it. But the clock was ticking.

The only real thing I did here was push. This sort of system has been talked about by people who care for quite a while, but nobody did anything... there were no concrete steps taken, and even as we speak this idea - this very good idea - is lieing dormant in offices around the world, awaiting funding and so on.

That baby idea is crowning now. It's not born yet.

The real hero here, I think, is Dan Lane - he has the know-how, and he's worked quite hard in making this all happen so far, and I think he has an even more important role to play later on. Someday I hope to shake his hand, maybe buy him a pint for taking this that much further. But it needs to go further.

There's a lot to be said about all of this, and I hope to be able to say it soon. But the real problem - the one we're having now - is getting it to the right people to use, even for testing. I've sent emails out, and I've asked for the The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog to post the information - and in the last few hours, they haven't done it.

I'm at wits end. This thing... has the capacity to help... and it's difficult, so difficult, to get people working on using it. Why is this so hard? I do not know. But this project continues... and if it's not used this time, then maybe some other disaster will need it. But it really should be in use now, I think.

I should probably sleep.

Posted by: Taran on 4 Jan 05

The baby was born, dressed in diapers and walked off. The idea has been around for quite a while, and is being implemented in smaller local circuits. I can assure you, by the looks of your idea, you still rely on human (in)efficiency. Which is why in India, it still takes about an hour for ambulance to respond to a call!

Below is a list of sites you get when you google btw! Some of them specialized, and some of them more generic

While the response might be that this is for a disaster, I humbly recall you saying that there is no such thing as 'Disaster Management'. So this is not really bridging the supposed digital divide is it, its just incorporation of an already held technology into an NGo?

Posted by: Neha on 5 Jan 05

I don't see how I have contributed anything to your ARC project Taran, but it is very kind of you to mention my name. Nice ideas..


Posted by: Rohit Gupta on 6 Jan 05

Neha and Rohit, in order:


While there are certain inefficiencies when dealing with disaster relief, there is also the question of whether one would want an automated system to be responsible for lives. Should we replace the Red Cross with robots?

Humans have a vital role for the future. Technology is our crutch in a lot of ways, and that crutch seems to be used mostly to beat up other humans. Sad, but...

As far as the NGO concept - there's a possibility, but that has never been the premise of such a project and I wish people would stop with the hyperbole and listen/read what is being written instead. If it does become an NGO, my opinion is that it is forced to become one for reasons such as:
(1) Credibility.
(2) Lack of support from other volunteer organizations - formal and informal.

Becoming an NGO has distinct benefits, but it comes with caveats. Every dollar received in funding is attached to a degree of politics withing the governmental and ICT communities. That, in my opinion, is something to be avoided since these are the same things that have worked against solutions in the past. It has been demonstrated that the amount of money needed to do this is by far smaller than most people expected.

This is about the Digital Divide in a very abstract way. But more importantly, this is about saving lives and increasing the quality of life - not about pointing fingers at failures but rather doing what it takes to avoid and minimize failures.

Why is it so difficult for people to believe that other people can do something good, with no ulterior motive? Has society become so jaded?

Rohit: You're one of the people who helped get this off the ground, and maybe you still have a role to play - I think you do, but that's up to you. You're rather busy, so volunteering time and effort is not something expected - but it is hoped for.

Posted by: Taran on 6 Jan 05

Another thing for Neha...

I've been researching similar systems, thanks in part to people such as Art McGee and others off of multiple email lists.

You weren't one of these people, and yet you are on the email list we are using for the project - so why didn't you inform us on the list, Neha? Such information certainly would have proven handy had you stepped forward there. You and I have even personally corresponded.

In reviewing these systems, there are differences. As we review the differences, we'll better see where the project is going. That requires timely communication - and that means sharing information like that which you posted here as a comment with the project team - which I believe you are a part of, though I am not quite sure.

Posted by: Taran on 6 Jan 05

I stand corrected Taran
Best, N

Posted by: Neha on 6 Jan 05


PS - I stand corrected cause I thought you were more open to criticism, and correction. I was wrong.
Best, yet again, N

Posted by: Neha on 6 Jan 05

I'm quite open to criticism. I've never claimed the idea to be original, nor have I claimed the original concept.

My response will be in a more appropriate place.

Posted by: Taran on 6 Jan 05



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