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Magazines > Information Today > May 2011

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Information Today

Vol. 28 No. 5 — May 2011

Disaster Response: Technology Makes a Difference
by Kurt Schiller

When disaster strikes, one of the most critical components for aid organizations, rescue workers, and affected populations is maintaining open lines of communication. However, the infrastructure that communication depends upon is frequently among the hardest hit areas during a disaster. To confront this major challenge of disaster relief, new communication and collaboration technologies are being repurposed from the social and business worlds to help respond to disasters with greater efficacy and speed.

Good Samaritans

On Friday, March 11, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake beneath the floor of the Pacific Ocean sent a cataclysmic tsunami racing toward Japan. Just minutes after the initial earthquake, that tsunami reached the shores of Japan, devastating more than 100,000 buildings and claiming the lives of 12,000 victims. In addition to the loss of human life, the tsunami badly damaged the infrastructure of the country, washing out roads, battering the nation’s electrical grid, and inflicting severe damage on three of the country’s nuclear reactors.

In the days following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, companies worldwide rushed to give aid and provide assistance to the primary relief organizations working on the ground to help the people of Japan. Among the roster of companies assisting in the efforts were many high-tech and internet companies, including major global companies such as Sony, Google, Microsoft, and Cisco.

Some companies used their unique resources to help raise funds for the relief efforts: Social game developer Zynga, creators of the popular games FarmVille and CityVille, partnered with international aid organization Save the Children to raise more than $1 million through the sale of special virtual goods in its various games. Other companies created tools and services to assist evacuees. Google deployed its Person Finder service, which it originally developed in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, to help survivors locate friends, family, and loved ones.

Publishers Contribute Medical Resources to Japan

While companies such as Microsoft and Google are contributing to the relief and recovery efforts in Japan with software tools, some publishers are contributing information resources to the people working on the ground. Both Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer made the decision to contribute access to medical resources to relief workers, ensuring that medical professionals have access to the information they need.

In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, Elsevier provided free access to its online clinical reference tools MD Consult and First Consult to all IP addresses from Japan. MD Consult is a collection of clinical information, while First Consult is an extension of MD Consult that provides short answers for medical professionals in a point-of-care scenario. In response to concerns over radiation exposure as a result of damage to several of Japan’s nuclear reactors, Elsevier also added a topic page for radiation sickness to MD Consult that contains a collection of selected resources on the subject.

Wolters Kluwer chipped in to the relief efforts in a similar fashion. Through its Ovid and Lippincott Williams & Wilkins divisions, the information services and publishing company provided free access to its Wolters Kluwer Health Emergency Response Portal to hospitals, institutional libraries, and other healthcare entities assisting with recovery in the affected regions of Japan.

“Access to scientific and health information can make a critical difference in the response to a major disaster like this, especially given all the complex health and environmental risks involved with this particularly tragic series of events,” says David Ruth, senior vice president of global communications for Elsevier. “We were very happy to be able to take some extra steps quickly to make sure that the right content is easily available for anyone who needs it.”

Emergency Collaboration

One company making a major impact in Japan was Microsoft. The firm has a history of assisting companies during natural disasters, with recent examples including the Haiti earthquake as well as the flooding in Pakistan in July 2010. In Japan, the company teamed up with international organizations to support the efforts of relief workers on the ground by providing a portfolio of software tools to connect lifesaving resources with the people who needed them.

Claire Bonilla, Microsoft’s senior director of disaster management, says the company was contacted just 3 days after the catastrophic earthquake with a request to help support food distribution by Second Harvest Japan, the largest food bank in the country.

“We first gained a request from another non-profit, Aidmatrix, which works closely with Second Harvest Japan, that had mentioned that their on-premise website capability was limited,” says Bonilla. “They needed to … give real-time communication updates, both to people trying to donate food and organizations trying to donate food and to people trying to get food.”

In response, Microsoft deployed a collection of collaboration, information sharing, social networking, and web publishing tools uniquely suited to disaster response that the company has assembled over the years. Bonilla explains that the company keeps this disaster response portfolio essentially on standby, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. The services can often be brought up and running in less than 1 hour.

As part of the portfolio, Microsoft deployed a collaboration and information portal powered by Windows Azure, the company’s cloud computing platform. Second Harvest used the portal to disseminate situational updates about food supplies, shelters, and radiation conditions throughout the affected areas.

“The benefit of Azure, which is part of our cloud services arena for Microsoft, is that this is a very lightweight, rapid-deployment portal,” says Bonilla. “This is a web portal that can be put up within minutes of any type of incident, and its ability to actually create updates doesn’t require a lot of IT skill or developer architecture depth.” Bonilla notes that the portal is designed so that creating updates for the site is no more complicated than editing a document in Microsoft Word.

Other solutions deployed by Microsoft to aid Second Harvest Japan and other relief organizations included Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, and Link Online. Microsoft partner Digital Office Japan built J!ResQ, an application that lets people affected by the disaster send voice messages to friends and family members via email. Like Microsoft’s disaster portal, the application is built on the Windows Azure cloud computing platform.

Bonilla says the use of cloud computing represents a major step forward for disaster response efforts. “We’ve seen a shift in the last couple years from putting these on-premise solutions in place to really moving into the power of the cloud,” she says. “Because, as you can imagine, in a natural disaster many times your infrastructure is disrupted or even destroyed.” Bonilla notes that using cloud computing platforms for disaster response means that relief efforts can access their information with fewer interruptions, closing a gap that could otherwise stretch to hours or even days.

Microsoft’s involvement with the crisis in Japan is ongoing, and it isn’t limited to just building solutions. The company is also providing free support and software licenses to many companies in the affected regions, as well as continuing to participate in fundraising efforts.

Harnessing Social Response

Top-down support from large corporations and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) is an essential part of disaster relief efforts, but social media is also increasingly playing a role in disasters and other crises. The earthquake in Haiti, January’s Egyptian revolution, and more recently the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami all saw prominent use of social media by survivors and aid organizations alike.

As with many new technologies, social media presents an opportunity and a challenge for disaster response. Although it lets individuals reach out to aid organizations on a much more personal scale than would otherwise be possible through more traditional means of communication, responding to the sheer number of messages and the varying content can be challenging.

In the interests of tackling this challenge, the American Red Cross hosted an Emergency Social Data Summit at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., last August. The summit brought together local and national emergency managers, government agencies, and technology companies to devise a strategy for making the most of social media.

Wendy Harman, social media director for the American Red Cross, says the summit was created as a result of the organization’s experience with social media during the earthquake in Haiti. The Red Cross used social media to help drive its fundraising efforts during the crisis, but at the same time it found that people were trying to reach out for individual help through services such as Twitter and Facebook.

“I saw a couple of hundred people saying things like, ‘My cousin is trapped in the rubble, you have to go get her out.’ And it’s just heartbreaking,” says Harman. “So because we were good at listening and we saw so much of that, I was sort of walking around the halls here, banging on people’s doors and saying, ‘We have to do something.’”

One tweet in particular had an especially personal impact on Harman: The communication manager for Morton’s The Steakhouse, a restaurant chain, began using her personal Twitter account to put out the call for help after she learned that an employee’s friend was trapped in the rubble.

The use of social media following the Haiti earthquake started Harman thinking about what people expected of emergency organizations on social media. “I was just noticing this huge gap between what emergency managers are able to do and how tuned in they are to social information, versus what the public is expecting,” she says. “And so we put on the summit just to bring all those people together: Emergency managers from federal, state, and local government, and other organizations like the Salvation Army and us.”

The summit resulted in a basic road map for harnessing social media for emergency response, which the Red Cross continues to work toward. Harman says the organization has developed some initial systems for routing emergency information from social media to the appropriate emergency organizations, and it is also experimenting with using social media to harness volunteer activities.

For Harman, it is only natural that people expect to use social media in emergency situations because organizations such as the Red Cross have made such a point of connecting with people through social media. “We’ve been so responsive on small things like, ‘What time is my CPR class tomorrow?’” she says. “We’re in there talking with people every day about … not necessarily such somber emergency situations … and so why wouldn’t they assume that we are going to be there during those moments as well?”

Harman expects that social media will play an increasing role in emergency situations in the future. She also notes that companies such as Twitter and Facebook have been very responsive to such efforts.

“I think that what happens is we all feel that burden that I felt when I saw that tweet from Morton’s about someone being trapped in the rubble, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that these tools were going to be used for this.’” she says. “But it’s become a really big deal—and especially with the Middle East situation right now, and with Japan. All of these major world events keep happening, as will happen, and I think just more and more we’re seeing people using [social media] for practical, life-saving purposes.”

Kurt Schiller is an assistant editor at Information Today, Inc. Send your comments about this article to
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