Tsunami relief effort puts technology to the test

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunamis in Asia that obliterated coastlines and infrastructure late last month has prompted some aid organizations to quickly devise creative ways to keep field workers in touch with their Canadian headquarters.

In Indonesia, unconfirmed reports are that

80 per cent of the west coast of Aceh province and 50 per cent of the capital Banda have been badly damaged or destroyed, according to the World Health Organization.

State-run telecom firm PT Telkom announced 80,000 telephone lines in the province were cut off in the disaster.

The WHO also said Sri Lanka’s infrastructure potentially has been destroyed or damaged as far inland as two kilometres.

In light of this devastation, CARE Canada is experimenting with solutions based on solar power that can provide support for the communications equipment sitting in its offices overseas.

“”(We’re trying) solar panels going through inverters that converts (the energy) back to 110 (volts) and 220 (volts),”” explained Gerard van der Burg, vice-president of IT for Ottawa-based CARE Canada.

“”We are in the process of shipping this week. All of that stuff will be operational by the weekend and shortly thereafter.

“”Currently, we’re going into Banda Aceh, which of course has been fairly — completely — levelled. They’re running out of fuel. Power is off and on.””

Aid groups and media have descended on to the embattled region, over-extending low-orbiting satellites, which in turn are providing unclear connections that don’t necessarily work the next time phones are needed, added van der Burg. This is why CARE Canada wants to move beyond satellite phones.

It is shipping Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) kits to shore up overall connectivity of its overseas offices with geostationary satellites, 2.4-metre dishes that provide speeds of up to 11 megabytes per second between local offices and with Canada, he said.

These mounted systems will allow CARE Canada to “”get the word out”” about its progress via live video feeds that can be picked up by broadcasters like CBC and CTV, explained Leslie Ventura, director of IT infrastructure. She said a permanently fixed Internet system will soon follow.

Moreover, van der Burg said, the charity is conducting “”very heavy-duty research”” and talking to corporate sponsors and partners about the next stage of enabling field workers in remote locations to make contact through pocket PCs using voice and data.

Yet much of this equipment runs on wireless and cell phone traffic, which is expensive and cumbersome to set up rapidly, he said. So CARE Canada aims to find a way to link PCs through a high-frequency signal, a slow method of keeping in touch but one suited to long distances, he said.

Van der Burg, who said in a few days he’ll know how long it will take for these devices to be deployed, is in discussions with tech firms like Research in Motion and Compaq. Although CARE Canada is standardized on HP handhelds, he said this brand may not necessarily be the right solution for the current disaster relief campaign.

As it turns out, CARE Canada was fortunate to have assessed the readiness of its Indonesian office, including checking connectivity, resources, network security and upgrade requirements, during the week before Christmas.

So it’s done all the work necessary during the first phase of any emergency situation, now putting it in an ideal situation to “”scale up rapidly with the influx of people and consultants and what not,”” van der Burg said.

The charitable group plans to ship four online servers and 20 computers to complement the equipment its field workers in Asia already have.

Another aid agency, the Canadian Red Cross, is using laptops, cell phones and satellite phones in Asia and may temporarily increase the number shipped out, said CIO Scott Duperron. He said staff can gain access to their desktop from anywhere in the world once they are online.

The lack of infrastructure on the coastal areas, however, means “”they have to run back to wherever they’re staying and recharge,”” Duperron explained. “”But they’re basically doing the reports in the evenings, you know, when they go back.””

There’s been extensive telecommunications damage, “”but it still is (confined) to the coastline areas. The moment you move a few miles inland, it’s generally fine.””

He explained that remote staff dispatch fact sheets and intelligence reports — which include “”everything from people killed to what (survivors) need…in extreme detail”” — to Red Cross headquarters several times a day.

At the moment, the Red Cross is asking for old computer and telecom equipment to be recycled for its disaster relief efforts. Duperron said the equipment will be used to capture data from charitable donations and issue receipts, rather than be moved to “”the other side of the planet.””

Both groups said all of their IT resources — be it technology or staff — are now focused on Asia’s disaster.

In CARE Canada’s case, a co-op student from the University of Waterloo in Ontario is helping to pick up the slack at its headquarters. It’s also requested that corporate partners free up some of their resources.

The Canadian Red Cross has postponed upgrading regular applications.

The death toll from the crisis, which Dec. 26 struck Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Maldives, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya, has reached almost 140,000.

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