Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Disaster management using open source and social media

Some of you may be aware of the Mercury 10 national counter-terrorism exercise currently being held in Australia, involving a variety of government bodies.

While this type of scenario is only one of potentially many different types of crises or disasters that could occur, natural disasters, pandemics, rocks from space, and so on, it does raise the question for me, how is Australia using social media and open source technologies in crisis management.

We've seen quite intensive use of social media in situations such as the Haiti earthquake, Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Mumbai terrorist attacks and the swine flu pandemic last year.

Across the world authorities are realising how valuable social media can be to help them quickly get information out to the public, to collect information on the extent of a disaster and help prioritise relief efforts.

They are also beginning to realise how dangerous it can be to not engage online, leaving rumours and misinformation to spread even faster and more virulently than was previously possible. A good example was during the Mumbai terrorist attacks when a rumour that the Indian government was asking for all live tweeting from Mumbai to stop in order to avoid giving the terrorists information about police movements.

However the really interesting developments in disaster management are happening outside of government. Software engineers and disaster management specialists have spent the last few years developing better tools for addressing crisis situations - often without any support from the authorities responsible for managing emergencies.

Two of these platforms are Ushahidi and Sahana.

Both of these platforms are open source, free-to-use web-based platforms designed to be highly resilient during disaster situations and flexible to the needs of both developing and developed nations.

Ushahidi, developed to report on violence during the 2008 Kenya election, has been deployed more than 20 times around the world to address situations such as violence in Gaza, the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Chile and Haiti's emergency responses to their respective earthquake, track crime levels in Atlanta, medical supply levels in pharmacies across Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia and track the swine flu pandemic.

The system allows reports by mobile phone SMS and MMS and via the internet to be aggregated into a real-time map, then used to identify priority areas for relief efforts or activities. While the system can be deployed simply for reporting by authorities, it has proven to be strongest where citizens have been able to report incidents directly, allowing emergency authorities to respond with a more complete picture of events.

Ushahidi is entirely free to reuse and can be deployed within a few hours.

The group behind the service are currently working on a second service, Swift River, designed to help manage the flood of online information about a disaster in the first few hours and help both emergency services and the public distinguish between rumour and fact. While Swift River won't be launched until the end of August, a video discussing how it will work is available online.

Sahana is another free open source system developed to assist in disaster management. A a web based collaboration tool, it is designed to help manage common coordination problems, such as locating missing persons, managing volunteers and aid and coordinating efforts between a variety of aid groups, government and those impacted by the disaster.

It was originally developed in 2004 by Sri Lankan developers to support the response to the December 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and was deployed by the Sri Lanka government to support disaster recovery efforts. A second phase, funded through Sweden, saw Sahana expanded into a more generic disaster management tool with global application.

Sahana was designed to cope with many of the infrastructure issues that frequently occur during disasters, such as intermittent power, loss of network connectivity and the need to deploy the service on low-end hardware and systems. In fact Sahana can be transported on and operated from a USB stick and is extremely flexible and easy to customise, reflecting the need to adapt quickly to the individual nature of every disaster.

Sahana is in use for the Pakistan floods at the moment and it was also used for the Haiti earthquake - discussed in this case study (PDF). It has also been used in the Phillipines, the US, Peru, China, Indonesia and Pakistan for a range of disaster management needs.

There are other open source tools available for disaster management purposes. It is also possible to rapidly build a custom system for a specific need using free and low cost tools such as Wordpress (for content management), Google Maps (for geospatial representations), YouTube (for video), Flickr (for images), Slideshare and Scribd (for presentations and documents), Twitter (for real-time updates), WidgetBox (for embeddable widgets), Facebook (for group coordination), Wufoo (for forms) and services such as Yahoo Pipes to integrate and process information and news feeds.

In most cases the time required to put together these types of custom systems is significantly less than that required to have systems developed within high-end content management systems - as are normally deployed for normal business needs by government agencies.

In most cases these third party services are also cheaper, more scalable and have greater network resilience and peak usage capability - reflecting their need to cater for millions of simultaneous users, more than most government sites are engineered to handle.

So while some governments appear to be relying on traditional means of communications in disasters - brochures or media releases at carefully timed intervals - it is inevitable that communities will self-organise, create their own tools and deploy them with great speed.

Today's challenge for governments is to use social media and online tools to improve their own disaster management capability, organise the flood of information and provide better outcomes - deploying disaster management systems or throwing together custom solutions in a matter of hours rather than months.

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