Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Online Support for January 2010 Australian Floods

Internet Society (ISOC-AU) members are discussing what support might be provided to help with the floods in Eastern Australia. Yesterday I had a phone call from Al Jazeera TV asking for an interview about how the use of electronic warning systems had gone. I explained that I was happy to talk about this on TV, but fortunately, as everything technology wise is working well in the emergency, there may not be much newsworthy in it.

After the brushfires in Victoria, work on an Australia wide telephone based emergency system was sped up: "Rudd Government Implements COAG Agreement on Telephone-based Emergency Warning Systems, AG and Minister for Broadband", 23 February 2009.

Such systems can send a voice and text message to all telephones registered in a defined area. One early problem was with mobile phones which might not be registered in the warning area and so not receive a message and that is being worked on.

Overall the ‘Emergency Alert’ system has worked well when activated for bushfires and more recently floods.

However, the problem in Queensland has been that there is not sufficiently precise meteorological information to be able to issue useful warnings.

Another use of computers and telecommunications will come into play with disaster management systems used to coordinate relief operations and to keep track of missing and displaced people. One aspect which might be of interest is that smart phones are being increasingly used for this work. I help with free software for disaster relief called "Sahana" provided by a non-profit organisation, but this has not been deployed so far for Queensland.

There were examples of use of the Internet, web, social networking and mobile communications for the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

The Sahana Free and Open Source Disaster Management system was also implanted for the the 2010 Haiti Earthquake.

However, this technology is usually required in third world countries lacking resources and infrastructure. There is less need in a location with good infrastructure, such as Brisbane.

Also emergency officials in developed countries are very reluctant to accept the use of this sort of technology. An extreme example was Hurricane Katrina, where relief the official US Government disaster management software did not run on the computers available in centres.

The Sahana developers discussed offering their software, but I explained that there was no way the US would accept software written in the third world. That problem has no been overcome by Sahana setting up its foundation in the USA and by projects involing the US military, so Sahana has been "naturalised".

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