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"Disaster IT" and the Shelter Computer
Jamais Cascio, 6 Oct 05

katrinacomp.jpgAs we become increasingly dependent upon the Internet and digital information sources in our societies, the more we need to have reliable information technology tools available in times of crisis. Disaster shelters try to have plenty of phone lines available; in the disasters to come, it will be equally if not even more important to have networked computers for evacuees. But the PCs used in shelters are often donated, with varying capabilities and functionality. Relief workers can't count on them having all the necessary tools and applications emergency users might need, and won't likely have the time to download applications and configure each PC perfectly.

But there's a solution: a so-called "LiveCD," a bootable CD-ROM configured to have all of the necessary pieces of software. Because it's bootable, the underlying OS is secure from viruses and abuse, and each machine using the CD can have the exact same configuration and applications. Ars Technica, one of the better websites for technical information and analysis, has published a useful discussion of what is required for setting up a LiveCD for use in relief shelters entitled "Download, Burn, and Boot." The author, Jon "Hannibal" Stokes, worked in Louisiana in the weeks following Katrina, assisting in the development and maintenance of computer labs for evacuation shelters; the LiveCD for Disaster IT idea emerged from his experiences.

Although a discussion of a CD-ROM may seem like geeky minutiae, it's actually an exercise in thinking about the needs of evacuees. One of the lessons that Stokes learned was that it's important not to assume that the needs of evacuees will be obvious:

In a disaster IT setting, first responders don't need prepackaged "solutions." A "solution" implies a known problem, and the primary challenge of disaster response is in identifying and meeting the myriad brand new and totally unexpected problems that crop up from moment to moment. What disaster IT workers need, then, are tools that let them make use of whatever the shelter environment throws at them. [...] Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and there's quite bit of both necessity and invention in the shelter environment. Disaster IT means giving people the tools to invent out of necessity—that's the whole task summed up.

Stokes compares the capabilities of different kinds of LiveCD builds, including several different Linux versions and a Windows version. He notes that, while there are good philosophical reasons to prefer Linux to Windows, there may be practical demands that make Windows necessary. For example, the FEMA website, contrary to federal access requirements, required the use of Windows Internet Explorer v.6 in the days following Katrina; attempts to register for assistance using other browsers or systems met with failure (this has apparently been rectified). Again, the underlying argument: don't presume to know everything that evacuees might need, but be ready with a variety of enabling tools and technologies.

Right now, LiveCDs for use by relief workers have to be hand-assembled. Stokes suggests that the next step should be to come up with a centralized download location for a disaster-ready system, accessible by non-technical users. Ideally, the downloads would include different setups appropriate to a variety of hardware configurations, making it possible for harried administrators to have options for getting recalcitrant used PCs up and running.

Beyond the details of Linux distributions and burning CDs, the article is a good trigger for a discussion of what kinds of technical support might be useful for people in a disaster environment. Shelters should consider having a variety of cell-phone charging bricks available, for example, as mobile phones have repeatedly proven to be extremely valuable for people in crisis, but a charger may not be on the list of things to grab on the way out when evacuating one's home. Digital cameras would be another useful tool for shelters, to make it possible to take pictures of evacuees to add to the contact databases.

Our reliance on digital technology is definitely a mixed blessing. Computers and related tools make it possible for greater varieties of communication and information access than ever before -- but have a much greater support requirement. Obviously food, water and safety are the primary concerns of people seeking shelter, but the ability to contact loved ones and to seek out news about what has transpired rank a close second. Jon Stokes has given us a good start on figuring out ways to make sure that these needs can be met, too, in times off crisis.

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We need to have electricity too. Bike charged batteries, just in case the crisis lasts for long.

While we're at it, how about wireless (both the backbone and the "endnodes")?

If this "crisis sites" grow to be the "new normal", then we'll have more resilient networks of people (aka societies).

Could we have the first 10% of that before a flu pandemic? Thank you.

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 7 Oct 05

Lucas touches on something that I think is really critical to the disaster discussion. We don't handle disasters well because we don't think well. We educate and train people, but only to function in a society that's already well defined. When things go wrong, our response is to try to prevent only those things. As an example, witness a Homeland Security department that *could* have simply prepared for a variety of disaster reponse situations, and instead is only focused on finding terrorists.

The livecd is a great, generic way to turn a computer on and get it to work. It would make a lot of sense for us (humanity) to spend time and energy preparing for disasters by developing a generic toolset that included not only livecds, but standalone mesh networks, and and and. Not by laying in stores of food, or buying a canoe, but by thinking about things common to all disasters (the need to communicate, the need to organize, the need to evacuate), and establishing a legitamate toolset that helps us respond. Why don't we *all* take first responder courses?

More generally, we should all practice simply thinking on our feet - something in short supply during Katrina and Rita. The tragedy is that the United States, of all countries, should have had the wherewithal to respond given our resources, but failed in a rather spectacular way. Not for lack of supplies and materials, but for lack of a plan, and lack of practice.

Posted by: neil on 7 Oct 05

Neil and all, there's a small start at

"Thinking on our feet" is already part of the (even smaller) (we're atempting to write a 32 page booklet with the basics - might grow to a full wiki in the future?)

Help (and links) very much appreciated!

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 7 Oct 05

My radio is a solar/dynamo flashlight/radio that I had modified so that I can charge AA batteries in the battery bay. It originally came, like most small scale solar devices, with a hard-wired internal battery that is the only thing that is rechargeable.

That's the flashlight, radio, and extra set of batteries that we're all advised to have in case of emergency with the added capability of producing low voltage DC power day or night by sunlight or muscle power.

Another modification I had made is a DC output so that the solar/dynamo can power a second device too. Like maybe a cell phone or a PDA.

Posted by: gmoke on 7 Oct 05

I'll have to dig further into this, as it has a lot to do with the systems I am trying to prototype in my spare (!?) time. You might want to take a look at this, which is proceeding as I have time. I now have a completely solar powered wireless router, as an example, with a Deka 12V battery and a panel of unknown origin (a legacy from my father) which is apparently tossing out about 10-15 Watts. I have larger panels to put up, but I wanted to get this system functioning first so I could run it for a few weeks, then see what needs to be done.

Deep cycle batteries are a must, by the way.

Posted by: Taran on 11 Oct 05



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