Social DRRAG-net speeds up quake disaster relief

When an earthquake with 6.1 magnitude on the Richter scale struck southwest Pakistan in late November, it destroyed hundreds of homes and killed at least 80 people just before dawn – the Disaster Relief Rotarian Action Group (DRRAG) was quick to react.

The group’s governor in the region jumped on to a Web portal that connects DRRAG members from around the world and put out the alert. Soon, members were collaborating within a communications network that had been built for them just a few months ago by Kitchener, Ont.-based Igloo Software Inc.

Pakistani earthquake victims sit outside a temporary tent shelter.

Using its range of Web 2.0 tools – blogs, wikis, photo galleries, custom maps and more – managed through personal dashboards, DRRAG members ensured that essential supplies were pouring into the area.

It was Igloo’s network that helped make the connection to a provider of emergency shelter boxes, says DRRAG chair John Eberhard.

“The local Rotarians were connected with the shelter box people through the DRRAG Web site,” he says. “The boxes include tents, axes, flashlights, water cleaning tablets and other emergency supplies.”

The effort resulted in around 1,200 tents being erected for those who lost their homes.

Igloo is looking to provide organizations with the same corporate social networking software that helped DRRAG react to the Pakistan earthquake and other disasters around the world. Despite the popularity of consumer social networks like Facebook and MySpace taking off over the past year, businesses are still in the early adopter stage of bringing the Web 2.0 tools inside the organization.

Socially-driven groups such as Rotary International are among the leading adopters of such tools.

Igloo hopes to convince more businesses of the value of social networking among employees and customers.

“We are in a very early stage,” says Igloo executive Gerard van Der Burg, whose focus is the public sector and emerging markets. He said organizations understand the need to connect with their members, who are their “lifeblood.”

The company also has a noteworthy name behind it. Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of Research in Motion, is the chair of Igloo’s board. The BlackBerry exec started Igloo in 2003 as a not-for-profit free online research network at igloo.org. Now connecting about 200,000 researchers from not-for-profit, education, and government sectors, Igloo evolved to a for-profit business offering earlier in 2008.

Igloo is named after the Inuit structure that is simple in design yet complex in architecture, and also serves as a meeting place for community minds. The organization was recently identified by analyst firm IDC Canada as one of the top 10 new media companies to watch.

“They are positioning themselves as a targeted departmental solution,” says Krista Napier, Canadian ICT innovation and export analyst with IDC. “Igloo is well-positioned to suit the needs of a larger organization or at a departmental level.”

A bird’s eye view of a tent village in Pakistan.

Igloo’s strategy is to take hold in one department and then work its way through an organization from there. It allows this by having a low minimum required users market, at just 10. It can also be a hosted service or an on-premise service depending on a client’s needs.

This is contrary to the model some other business-oriented social networks have offered – attempting to connect every member of an organization to one big network at once.

“Companies that buy very large systems often call those ‘ghost ships’ because they are put in place and the departments don’t adopt them,” van Der Burg says. “Igloo is based on the idea that you can connect one community to another – it’s a community of communities.”

That’s a model that suits DRAGG quite well.

As a sub-group of Rotary International, the community has a potential of 34 districts to draw upon, with about 50-125 clubs per each district.

Until now, these communities haven’t communicated with one another in any real meaningful fashion, Eberhard says. “Igloo is changing that.”

Eberhard credits Iglooto for drawing attention to DRRAG within the larger Rotary organization. The group is in its first year, and has been using Igloo for just about four months.

More members of Rotary International may adopt the software over the coming year, he adds. Different groups that adopt the software could connect with DRRAG and also take advantage of the Web 2.0 tools at their disposal for their own community group.

The Igloo software includes numerous ways to share information and allow for communication. The coordination centre of the site shows a Google Map of the world with disaster zones highlighted with triangular icons. Pakistan’s icon is red to signal the status of a “response situation.”

Clicking on the icon takes you to more details including the zone coordinator’s contacts, a description of the disaster, and links to updates, discussions, documents, and a photo gallery.

Messaging on the site includes peer-to-peer messages, and discussion forums that can be set up in a one-to-many or a many-to-many format.

“All of these communication tools are integrated with e-mail,” van Der Burg says. “You can’t e-mail to a blog or make a wiki post. So even if you can’t get on to the Web, you can still participate in that community through e-mail.”

Some companies may find that using some Web 2.0 tools on a standalone basis is enough, Napier says. Not all businesses will need a comprehensive corporate social network.

Volunteers erect a temporary shelter.

For those that do, Igloo is looking to make “improvements” to its current offering, by introducing multiple profiles soon.

This would allow employees to have a profile they present to their colleagues and another they present to the general public. Igloo executives say the company will continue to offer its Jump Start service that provides some guidance and training to organizations that roll out their service.

DRAGG has already seen nine disasters addressed through their new Web portal. When disaster inevitably strikes again, they say they’ll be ready.

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