January 2005

ICT’s Role in Disaster Relief and Warning

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Instant blogging brings information wave!
One big consequence of tsunami on ICT sector can be witnessed by the sheer increase in number of blogs on Internet. Following tsunami, blogs have become an important means of communication. Blogs from around the world are offering instant witness reports from the region affected by the tsunami that the traditional media cannot match, as well as links to relief groups for readers seeking to provide immediate help. The phenomenon has now reached global proportions with the explosion blogs and sites dedicated to the South-West Asian disaster. Such spontaneous generation of enormous content on Internet and the way people are recording electronic diaries to tell their story has not happened ever before.

A blog by definition means frequent, chronological publication of personal thoughts and Web links. People maintained blogs long before the term was coined, but the trend gained momentum with the introduction of automated published systems, most notably Blogger at blogger.com. Thousands of people use services such as Blogger to simplify and accelerate the publishing process. Blogs are alternatively called web logs or weblogs.

A list of 106 links in more than a dozen nations is available at Wikipedia, the free encylopaedia site. On Google's home page, there is a link that shows surfers exactly how they can contribute to tsunami relief funds. There are even blogs that allows people with access to Internet to post appeals for help, search for missing friends, donate money to an organisation. Not only information and heart wrenching stories, these blogs are also giving rise to many speculations.

One such example is 'The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog'. It is wonderfully structured giving latest news, information about resources, aid, donations, and volunteer efforts at one place. This was set up collaboratively by a set of individuals coming together from different corners of earth. This blog though created under blogger.com has taken the form and nature of a website accessed by 200,000 plus people in 3 days. The urgency with which huge amount of information has been nicely pooled up at one place is striking.

Another blog, which needs a mention here is jlgolson.blogspot.com. It is a video blog. It is just one of dozens of locations on the Internet hosting amateur videos of the Indian Ocean disaster. Another video blog hosting tsunami videos is waveofdestruction. org. This has more than 25 amateur videos of the Tsunami impact. Both these blogs have received more than 600000 hits in 3-4 days.

These blogs not only show the information revolution that has ushered in World Wide Web (www) era. It brings to light that disasters and pressing situations like this can get a lot of people from all parts of globe come and work together through Internet for a single cause. People form groups and contribute in their own ingenious ways. People want to reach out to each other, share their stories, more particularly in emergency circumstances. It leads them to discover newer modes of connecting and communicating. 'Blogs' are just a beginning and still evolving. Disasters too can bring great innovations!

Source:
http://tsunamihelp.blogspot.com
www.wavesofdestruction.org

Largest online aid
This tsunami has shown that Internet has become a preferred channel for charity. At least half of private donations arrived through the Internet and it is now the largest online outpouring of aid for a single relief effort. CARE USA has received $6.8 million in online payments. Of the $35 million received by the U.S. Fund for UNICEF in New York, $25 million is in Internet donations. Amazon.com set up a donation system within two days of the December 26 disaster and has received more than 187,000 contributions, providing more than $15 million for the American Red Cross. Auction site eBay has collected more than $790,000 for UNICEF.

Global community action unites survivors
Hundreds of websites and blogs worldwide are playing a crucial job of reuniting the survivors to their families. They have become announcement boards where one can post a message, giving details and picture of the missing family member or friend. Since tourists from all over the globe have gone missing in Tsunami ravaged South Asia, their families are finding Internet as the global platform to reach out. Moreover with the breakdown of phone lines, more and more people sitting in countries in Europe or United States are finding it easier to turn to Internet to seek news of their missing loved ones. Official websites have been launched to provide information of the Tsunami victims too. Thailand has developed a website, www.csiphuket.com for the purpose of searching relatives and friends killed or injured in the tsunami disaster. The system has been set up in a police squad room by volunteers, including programmers and website developers with the aim to put all data available on the dead and missing in one place instead of 80 different sites. Similarly the Tamil Nadu police in India also has launched a website called www.tsunami nagapattinampolice.com to provide information about the dead and the missing in Nagapattinam district.

 

Disaster preparedness and Internet
Effective telecommunication capabilities like phones, Internet access and wireless are imperative to facilitate immediate recovery operations for serious disaster events, such as, hurricanes, floods, etc. The commercial telecommunications infrastructure is rapidly evolving to Internet-based technology. Therefore, the Internet community needs to consider how it can best support emergency management and recovery operations. Three examples of emergency communications include:
  • Conveying information about the priority of specific phone calls that originate in a VoIP environment through gateways to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).
  • Access and transport for database and information distribution applications relevant to managing the crisis.
  • Interpersonal communication among crisis management personnel using electronic mail and instant messaging.
Initially, the working group for the development of this emergency communication system will develop the 'Requirements for Internet Emergency Preparedness in the Internet' which will detail the specific functions and technologies needed to provide support for Emergency Preparedness systems in the Internet. The working group may also develop the 'Framework for Supporting Internet Emergency Preparedness in IP Telephony' if it is determined that IP telephony requires special treatment. The working group will stretch across a number of Areas and Working Groups and will co-operate closely with various telephony signaling working groups, Differentiated Services, Protocol for carrying Authentication for Network Access (pana) and various other operational groups such as various ITU-T study groups.

Source: http://www.ietf.org/proceedings/03mar/225.htm

Tsunami warning at the click of a mouse
In a move that gives a boost to people power, the UNESCO Ingovernmental Oceanographic Commission's (IOC) tsunami warning system in the pacific, ITSU, has set up a 'public tsunami warning listserve' so that anyone who wish to can receive by email tsunami warning centre information message.

To subscribe to this email warning one needs to visit
http://ioc.unesco.org/itsu/contents.php.

Sify comes forward to help tsunami affected areas
In India, Sify Ltd. is establishing Internet centres at the tsunami-affected areas of Cuddalore, Nagapattinam, Kanyakumari, and Chennai in response to the need for reliable communications between these areas. These will offer free Internet access facilities to the public, NGOs, officials and anyone who wishes to use the Internet to communicate to their loved ones, according to a company release. The first centre in Cuddalore is up and running, and the centre in Kanyakumari is expected to be on stream soon.

Source: Deccan Herald

Wireless: Links the unlinked
When a disaster strikes a place, the communication link in the region dies first. To start with the relief operations then, restoration of communication becomes vital. This emphasises the need of multiple independent methods of communication available to assure that if there is a failure, other means of communication are available.


Net Relief Kit
Image courtesy: Cisco system

Cisco Systems have come up with NetRelief Kits (NRK) to provide wireless communication helpful for relief agencies and NGOs engaged in disaster relief efforts. The NetHope consortium, an alliance of companies and relief organisations, plans to make available NRK for the Tsunami struck regions. The kits create an easy-to-use wireless connection with core access coming from satellite company Inmarsat. The kits were created specially for the real-time disaster management and NetHope is currently trying to determine the best locations for deployment. NetReliefKit is best described as 'communications hub in a box' for NGOs in the field. Rugged, it can provide both voice communication and Internet links via satellite, and can be powered by a car battery. It has built-in WiFi, making it possible for a single NRK to serve an entire facility.

Other grassroots efforts like a project called Post Tsunami Reconnect are looking to coordinate donations of antennas and radio equipment, as well as collect donated funds, organise expertise, and recruit volunteers to work in the affected regions.

In response to the tsunami, the Wireless Communications Association International (WCA) has also announced organisational efforts within the wireless broadband industry leading to a meeting on January 13, 2005 during WCA's annual International Symposium and Business Expo in San Jose, California, USA.

The meeting's agenda was to foster industry efforts on immediate disaster relief, both monetary and in vitally needed equipment for First Responders. Participants also will help plan for longer-term infrastructure needs especially suited to the emerging capabilities of wireless broadband.

WCA's meeting would leverage WCA members' expertise into short-term and long-term relief. Short-term, industry leaders would organise a task force to raise money and to coordinate equipment donations for effective emergency deployment. Also, the task force would plan longer-term infrastructure advisory services for the region, building upon ongoing work.
Source: www.nethope.org

Mobile tales
The tsunami that struck the coastal communities of several Asian countries on 26th December has been made even more tragic as news begin to break of how a handful of technicians, monitoring the progress of the waves across the seas using the latest ICT systems, had found themselves unable to warn affected communities.

 

This was not the case with Vijayakumar Gunasekaran, a 27-year old son of a fisherman from Nallavadu village, Pondicherry on the eastern coast of India, who works in Singapore. He had access only to a radio and television on the morning of 26 December. Vijayakumar followed the news of the earthquake in Aceh, Indonesia as it unfolded over the radio and television in Singapore. As the seriousness of the disaster in Aceh sank in he began to worry about the safety of his family living along the Indian coastline facing Aceh. He decided to phone home.

Muphazhaqi, his sister answered the phone. She told him that seawater was seeping into their home when he asked what was happening in Nallavadu. Vijayakumar realised at once that his worst fears were rapidly materialising. He asked his sister to quickly leave their home and to also warn other villagers to evacuate the village. “Run out and shout the warning to others” he urged his sister.

Her warning reached a couple of quick-thinking villagers who broke down the doors of the community centre set up by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation where a public address system used routinely to announce sea conditions to the fishermen was housed. The warning from Vijayakumar, collaborated at this time by a second overseas telephone call from Gopu, another villager working abroad, was broadcasted across the village using the loud-speaker system. The village's siren was sounded immediately afterwards for the people to evacuate.

No one was killed in this village as a result of the timely warnings. Nallavadu is home to 500 families and about 3,630 people. While all lives were saved, the tsunami destroyed 150 houses and 200 fishing boats in the village.

Source: www.digital-review.org/ahp01.htm

ICT could have been the saviour!
Information and Communication technology (ICT) is a means to share information and it has no better utility other than, when used in disaster preparedness, relief and rescue operations. In Tsunami disaster too ICT could have played an important role to save lives, but to our disappointment it did not.

As Minister of State for Home Affairs, India, Shri Prakash Jaiswal said that there was one and a half hours time gap between the quake in Sumatra and the tidal waves hitting the Indian coast. “One-and-a-half hours are sufficient time. If, during this time, the coastal areas had been informed of the presence of tidal waves in the sea, many lives could have been saved.”

One Indian seismologist wrote in a leading newspaper, “Given our scientific and communication facilities, there was a clear span of about 120 to 150 minutes to send an alert message through radio, TV and loudspeakers to vulnerable communities. Had this been done, the death toll would have been lower.”

In cases like this when information needs to be spread far and wide, ICT tools like radio, television, mobile phones and Internet become very significant. Other than these latest technologies, there are also some related technologies that can prove to be a boon in these situations. For example, Ham radios and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Ham radios are doing a great job in providing information after the tsunami disaster. Fifteen ham-radio operators, with their individual set-ups like high frequency radio sets and solar panels for power supply, are working in various islands in coordination with the administration and NGOs there to trace the missing people.

The radio operators in Andaman and Nicobar islands are also trying to coordinate with their counterparts in the coral islands to go deeper into the forest areas to trace the near extinct tribes, if trapped.

A few success stories could be heard where mobile phones have saved lives. But other than that ICT has been greatly under utilised to avoid the disaster. There has been no use of radio, television an internet to issue tsunami warnings.


Destroyed temple in Sri Lanka
Image courtesy: www.animorphix.com

Lessons for India
Some of the lessons that all the affected countries should learn from this disaster have been discussed and debated by various experts. Here we take a look at a few of them.

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