Katrina crisis sends Canadian IT firms into action

Canadian technology companies are pitching in to help relief efforts around Hurricane Katrina, in some cases jury-rigging applications that are most often found in the enterprise to track and aid victims of the crisis.

For one Ottawa-based software provider, it was a question of turning a case management tool commonly used by insurance companies into a database that could connect the homeless with those who are willing to open their doors.

Customer Expressions was contacted by a newly-formed organization called Operation: Share Your Home, based in Baton Rouge, La. The group was put together to help find accommodation for those who lost their own homes in the devastation caused by the hurricane.

“I’m not sure how they knew of us . . . but they had been aware of us and knew what the software could do,” said Joe Gerard, vice-president of sales and marketing for Customer Expressions.

“The people that started this group down there were trying to slap together a database where you could enter the information. It had the functionality to record stuff but that was (all). It wouldn’t have had any workflow tools or searching to allow them to go through and figure out how to match these people up,” he said.

Within a few days of being contacted, Customer Expressions built a module for Operation: Share Your Home – a Web portal where people that were willing to make some room in their homes register their names and addresses. The site also allows them to specify how many people they can take, how long they’d be able to stay and even details like age and gender preferences and whether they would allow alcohol to be consumed in their homes.

The site went live on Saturday. It’s too soon to tell how many people have been matched to their temporary abodes, said Gerard, but more than 10,000 willing participants have put their names down. Most of those people are close to the affected areas, but some offers have come from as far away as Illinois. At press time, a spokesperson for Operation: Share Your Home was unreachable since phone lines in Baton Rouge were down due to the hurricane.

Tugboat Enterprises, a Powell River, B.C.-based data recovery company aims to aid businesses affected by the disaster. Using the company’s Lifeboat software, users can retrieve data from a non-booting computer by attaching a working machine and accessing the hard drive directly.

“We’re making that available free of charge to anybody whose business is down,” said Gordon Wilson, president of Tugboat. “That’ll be anybody from a small, home-based business to large companies who need to access and retrieve data very quickly.

Wilson initially thought he would offer his product for free until Sept. 16, but the response was such that he has extended the deadline until the end of the month.

“We were just absolutely blown away by the magnitude of the devastation,” he said. “Beyond the human tragedy and loss of real estate, people who are in business and marginally affected even, are going to suffer significant costs in data recovery.”

The software works with Windows-based machines and is available as a download from the company’s Web site or through a Florida-based distributor that can ship the disks directly. Users can register online and once their IP address is verified as originating from an affected area, they can download and install Lifeboat.

“There may be some people that might scam it, but for the handful or few dozen that might, so what? We’re not going to not do it for the few people that are trying to take advantage,” said Wilson.

Ottawa-based Protus IP Solutions is aiding the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort by working with one of the best-known disaster relief agencies, the American Red Cross. Protus is providing the organization its voice-mail, e-mail and fax broadcasting services so it can communicate effectively between its 140 offices and in some cases with residents in Louisiana and Mississippi that were directly affected by the tragedy.

“What they’re doing is simply using our fax and voice broadcasting systems to deliver one message to all these different places at once so it’s a consistent message, it’s timely and reaches everybody at the same time,” said Steve Adams, vice-president of sales and marketing for Protus.

Protus’s broadcast tools have been used in disaster relief efforts in the past, he added, or for other areas like informing a population about school closings. They’re also used by enterprises as customer service tools. Protus is now offering its service for free to any of its existing customers in the affected states, said Adams. “We just want to make it as easy as possible for them to continue to use the service.”

All three of the Canadian technology companies are providing their services for free as part of the Katrina clean-up efforts. They’re also aware that a little good will in a crisis can go a long way.

Joe Gerard of Customer Expressions said that his company will investigate a business model around future applications of its product in disaster areas. The company has pledged free support for Operation: Share Your Home for as long as the organization needs it but “what we’re looking at now is whether we can make money off this someday. We’ve donated the time and effort and software (this time).”

Tugboat came into existence only last year, so the company wants to get off to a good start and generate some buzz, said Wilson. The current iteration of Lifeboat is a client-based recovery solution, but the company is working on a networked version.

“We have four other products in the stream and two more than are on the drawing board. From our point of view, not only does it help people out, but because we’re a new company, it’s important for us to get known and it’s important for us to get known in a good light,” said Wilson. “The more we can do to help people, the better off we’ll be.”

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