Aid organization tries out solar power in relief work

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunamis in Asia that obliterated coastlines and infrastructure has prompted some aid organizations to quickly devise creative ways to keep field workers in touch with their Canadian headquarters. In Indonesia, unconfirmed reports (as of press time) were 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 2 km.

In light of this devastation, CARE Canada, a humanitarian relief organization, 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 convert (the energy) back to 110 (volts) and 220 (volts),”” explained Gerard van der Burg, vice-president of IT for Ottawa-based CARE Canada.

Aid groups and media have descended on to the embattled region, over-extending low-orbiting satellites, which in turn are providing fuzzy connections that don’t necessarily work when 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 — 2.4 metre dishes that provide speeds of up to 11 Mbps between local offices and with Canada — to shore up overall connectivity of its overseas offices with geostationary satellites, 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 is in discussions with tech firms such as 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 had already assessed the readiness of its Indonesian office, including checking connectivity, resources, network security and upgrade requirements, during the week before Christmas. So it had done all the work necessary during the first phase of any emergency, now putting it in an ideal situation to “”scale up rapidly with the influx of people and consultants,”” van der Burg said. The organization planned to ship four online servers and 20 computers to complement the equipment its field workers in Asia already have.

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