Third World Software Could Have Role in Disaster Relief

By Sue Bushell

An open source disaster management system developed for the Asian Tsunami could play a role in future Australian emergency management efforts.

Director of the Australian Computer Society's communication technologies board Tom Worthington has had discussions with Federal CIO Ann Steward about the possibilities of deploying the Sahana disaster management system in the event of a bird flu epidemic in Australia.

Sahana, a Web-based system developed in Sri Lanka for the December 2004 Tsunami, is an integrated set of pluggable applications providing solutions to large-scale humanitarian problems in the aftermath of a disaster. An Indonesian rescue group used the system during relief efforts, with technical support from Indonesian IT university students and funding from the Australian Computer Society.

Version 2, released as free open source software for dealing with future disasters, allows the system to run on tablet computers, PDAs, mobile telephones and other low bandwidth small screen devices. Worthington says the developers are extending the system to help developing nations deal with a bird flu outbreak.

The system includes a missing persons registry, organization registry (to coordinate the efforts of multiple relief agencies), request management (to track needs and fulfillment), and camp registry (which tracks victims and refugees in temporary camps).

The ACS sponsored Sahana's deployment for the Indonesian earthquake with the assistance of staff at the Australian National University and CSIRO. Worthington has been teaching ANU IT students how to design emergency Web systems for smart phones and PDAs for the last couple of years. The provision of Blackberries and similar devices to senior staff in government agencies and companies provides a useful platform for emergency use, he says.

"I have suggested that we wait and see how well the software works in Indonesia and then I am going to meet with AGIMO and discuss how the software might be used in Australia," Worthington says. "At CeBIT in Sydney I gave a presentation on how it might be used in case of the bird flu pandemic for dealing with the disaster.

"I have discussed briefly with Ann Steward if the system deployed in Indonesia might be used for dealing with a bird flu pandemic. I will be meeting with John Lalor from AGIMO after we have some result of the Indonesian deployment."

Worthington says the biggest barrier to Sahana's adoption is likely to be cultural, with western governments still grappling with the concept of adopting open source software, and reticent to adopt software out of the third world. But he says a global pandemic would stretch the resources of all nations, creating a need for rapid dissemination of information and provision of temporary medical facilities - conditions similar to those prevailing during a natural disaster.

"The use of Web based software provides the opportunity to combine a system for dealing with a disaster with an information system about developments and training for disaster response. The use of standard computer hardware and software allows a "bootstrap" approach: equipment from a local school or office can be pressed into service for emergency coordination. The Internet can be used to download the needed software and then the training and information can be obtained over the Web," he says.


Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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