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Collaborative Response to Disaster
Jamais Cascio, 10 Oct 05

200px-AF-aid2.jpgThe tsunami of December 2004 made us all pay more attention to the need for collaborative, distributed tools for disaster response. These could piggy-back on mobile phone networks, take advantage of RSS and other web standards, even take advantage of existing measures such as ham radios. Each new disaster brings fresh reminders of how much more needs to be done -- and how difficult it is to assemble these tools in places most at risk.

The Kashmir earthquake managed to kill, over the course of a few minutes, more people than have been lost in all of the hurricanes so far this season (including Hurricane Stan, which hammered Central America, killing at least 2,000 as a result of flooding and mudslides). As has become a standard (and welcome) response to large-scale disasters, a website was set up shortly after the quake to track news reports and centralize information on assistance; the South Asia Quake Help weblog was assembled by the same people who put together the South East Asia-East Asia Tsunami site. But as WorldChanging ally Taran Rampersad notes, there are still basic communication problems in the aftermath of the quake:

... once again, SMS is the only reliable communication medium in the region, and are asking for something like the ARC to be set up. ... the problem is letting people know in the area that there is a number to SMS messages to. Again, prior planning could have helped - but if a local telecommunications company can do a broadcast SMS of the place to send messages to... well, that would be useful.

It's not that the distributed disaster response networks aren't being set up -- both Finland and the Netherlands have begun testing systems using existing mobile phone networks for sending out emergency alerts this last week alone. But the places that have most readily embraced the idea of using these networks for public emergency information tend to be places with the greatest existing redundancy of communication networks. Despite the proliferation of mobile networks in the developing world, and the increasing use of mobile phones for more than straightforward conversation, there seems to be less movement towards giving those networks a community-response role.

I'm not sure what the answer is, here. The problem isn't primarily that the cost of the emergency network systems is too high -- many are open standards. And it's certainly not a problem of the lack of a perceived need.

Maybe it's the lack of a demonstrable success story. The idea of using distributed tools for collaborative disaster alerts and response is relatively new, and the places that have moved most aggressively to adopt the model haven't been the centers of major disasters -- yet. This situation won't last, though; the chance for distributed disaster tools to prove themselves is just a matter of time.

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Comments

Perhaps as a start we might think in terms of standards around a portable disaster response system. Although having an existing emergency system in place is probably the ideal, there's a tremendous capital outlay, and as we've seen in a number of recent situations, it's often difficult to determine what's needed ahead of time. Add to that complexities such as this one (http://www.radioresponse.org/wordpress/) in which a grassroots effort is now competing with a a FEMA-sponsored contractor (why didn't FEMA *hire* the people already on the ground?).

It seems to me there may well be a legitimate opportunity for someone to build a free-standing telecommunications system that can be literally dropped in place as a first response. Without the ability to communicate, nothing else gets done. At a minimum, defining some standards around what needs to be put in place, and what an emergency system looks like would go a long way towards helping people on the ground implement a solution in a timely fashion.


Posted by: neil on 11 Oct 05

Those are good points, Neil.

Jamais, I think what's lacking is organizational will. I tend to agree with Marty Kearns that the Red Cross would be the logical organization to make this happen, but their priority right now is in dealing more directly with these recent disasters. However I'm sure they're learning a lot that could inform the standards development that Neil proposes.

So my first thought would be to work with the Red Cross, but the question is, who works with 'em, and who authorizes the work on their end? I know they're receptive - they certainly had no qualms about taking the data that the PeopleFinder project put together and merging it with their own database of lost and found people after Katrina.


Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 11 Oct 05

My experience... and the experience of others... is that nobody is interested in these systems unless there is a disaster. The ARC project, or what it has become, was pretty much stagnant because of a lack of interest after the fact. But whenever something goes wrong, guess who gets the emails?

A portable disaster communication system is ideal, but the number to SMS to has to be local for it to be cost-effective, or someone has to donate the cost of those calls. Then there is the integration to the internet and HAM radio which must be done. There are some good people who think about this stuff during disasters, and who do really great things. The trick, though, is to get them thinking when there *isn't* a disaster so that we can be prepared for the next one.

The Red Cross seems to be getting a clue, but how long will that take?

For a true system to work, people have to know about it in advance - just like in the U.S., people know to dial '911'. Well, why not '767' (for SMS)?

The saddest part is that any telecommunication provider in the region could have had this set up within the first hour of the earthquake. But they won't do it. So, I suppose, people will have to continuously criticize by creating.


Posted by: Taran on 11 Oct 05

Good news people!

We've had 100 lines opened up just a few hours ago (thanks to Taran, Nathan and the team around the world) running on IP PABX servers from Pakistan and the US, 3 numbers - 1 is local to Pakistan, another local to the US & UK for sms messages and calls - inbound - at the moment.

Termination is being done by Moblink and Ufone in Pakistan, sms sent to these numbers posts content to a broadcast list/wiki and will be expanded to more soon.

Head over to www.pakistancare.org/tiki for more info, the instructions for SMS reporters on the ground will be detailed at the South Asia Quake Help wiki (quakehelp.asiaquake.org) soon.

Thanks to all who were involved in this communications effort!


Posted by: Angelo Embuldeniya on 15 Oct 05



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