Virtual HQ: Using Web networks to organize disaster response
Last spring, representatives from Microsoft and Silicon Valley giants Google and Yahoo attended the first-ever Crisis Camp in Washington, D.C. At the camp, NGOs, governments and first responders cited the challenges they face during disaster management.
The computer geeks saw an opportunity to contribute. They formed a coalition called Random Hacks of Kindness. Jointly sponsored by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Second Muse, NASA and the World Bank, RHoK is turning computer developer resources loose on disaster response and humanitarian relief, sort of a hackathon for humanity.
The group plans to address problems such as how to best filter information from local citizens to aid first responders, how to quickly collect and publish fresh aerial imagery of affected areas, and how to create a comprehensive missing persons finder after a disaster.
During Hurricane Katrina, no less than 37 people-finders sprang up on the internet. People looking for a lost loved one had to first locate and check all 37 sites.
Jeffery Martin, business product manager for Google Crisis Response, told Homeland1, “We'd like to see a technology evolve that synchronizes people-finders.”
At the first RHoK meeting, held in November, 11 projects were presented, including a number of open-source mobile applications pertaining to family communication plans.
The FEMA Prize went to one called Break Glass, which allows easy one-button activation of a cached family plan on phones in the event of no connectivity, and the broadcast of an emergency message to family members once connectivity is restored.
Another system, called “I’m Okay,” allows people to inform loved ones that they’re OK following an emergency or disaster situation.
“With mounting environmental catastrophes, it is essential that we begin to think many steps ahead,” said Todd Khozein, a consultant at Second Muse, a strategic think tank.
For instance, if the Internet infrastructure goes down during a disaster, local wireless hardware may still be useful. One RHoK proposal would allow wireless laptops, routers and mobile devices to dynamically create a mesh network so that critical information can still be shared.
Each node in a mesh network acts as an independent router, regardless of whether it is connected to another network. This allows continuous connections and reconfiguration around broken or blocked paths by hopping from node to node until the destination is reached. Such a network could host applications such as Sahana, an open-source disaster management system.
NASA’s contribution to RHoK is being a data broker. The agency currently has 14 spacecraft in Earth orbit monitoring the environment, generating a torrent of approximately 4TB of new earth science data every day.
“This data, together with 40 years of archived data, is a global resource for the development and reconstruction community,” said Robbie Schingler of NASA’s Ames Research Center.
The mission of the World Bank in this effort is to promote sustainable development and reduce global poverty.
“Disasters caused by adverse natural events disproportionally affect the poor and have a negative impact on sustainable development and economic growth,” said World Bank spokesperson Emma Phillips. “The Bank is working to mainstream disaster risk management to address these issues.”
The second RHoK event is scheduled for the end of February.