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Disaster Management Software Meets Sandy Challenge

February 21, 2013

Greg Muraski 301-405-5283

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – In Superstorm Sandy's aftermath, New York City police officers worked alongside "Occupy Sandy" volunteers to haul supplies for survivors. The effort was supported by an open source software system named Sahana Eden (abbreviated from "Emergency Development Environment"), and its post-Sandy application illustrates an emerging model for grassroots disaster management that complements resource-challenged government response systems, says a University of Maryland data management expert.

Louiqa Raschid, a professor in the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and the Institute of Advanced Computing StudiesSahana is "the world's leading open source software program for the rapid deployment of humanitarian response management," says Louiqa Raschid, a professor in the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and the Institute of Advanced Computing Studies. She has worked to distribute the platform on a pro bono basis as founding chair of the Sahana Software Foundation. "It helps pinpoint those in need in real time and coordinate efforts to get them relief."

Occupy Sandy adopted the Sahana program to network with other community groups and administer material assistance and volunteers from the hardest hit communities, including the Rockaways in Queens, Staten Island and Coney Island, where recovery efforts will continue for months to come.

"The platform is ready to take off in the U.S., especially at the grassroots level," Raschid says. "I'd recommend that community response groups look into this now – before the next calamity."

How Sahana works
Volunteers use Sahana to coordinate relief efforts from Brooklyn's St. Jacobi ChurchSahana streamlines IT-based humanitarian management by making it possible for organizers to share information – otherwise confined to spreadsheets and Google documents – using database technology. "This database driven application can accommodate rescue management, volunteer management, situational awareness, shelter management and logistics, and it's adaptable to multiple languages," says Raschid, whose research specialties range from data management and information integration to social media modeling to financial cyber infrastructure.

Devin Balkind, executive director of New York-based Sarapis, a nonprofit working with the Sahana Foundation in supporting Occupy Sandy, says the key to Sahana's versatility lies in its capacity for "enabling users to efficiently cross-reference massive sets of data that would otherwise stretch the limits of spreadsheets."

Occupy Sandy collaborator Respond and Rebuild, for example, has used the platform to track and map more than 180 work orders – each with nearly 50 variables of information – targeting residential and business properties in the Rockaways. Such variables include property type, basement and first-floor flooding depth, damage description, work order details covering necessary equipment and total of volunteers, and the total of the property's occupants and whether they intend to stay. This helps response teams triage and identify the most urgent situations.

More broadly, Sahana has facilitated 400-plus phoned and e-mailed supply and service requests from various New York distribution points. "Administrators in these cases are able to confirm request availability and generate a waybill, or checklist, for inventory gathering and delivery instruction," Balkind says.

Global Applications
Raschid, now treasurer and a director of the Sahana Software Foundation, has spearheaded worldwide NGO and government adoption of the platform. It originated in Sri Lanka where "Sahana" means "relief." A team of IT specialists helped the Sri Lankan government pinpoint relief targets by creating a database of relief camps and a demographic breakdown of more than 26,000 survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Subsequent applications include the following:

  • Government officials administered missing persons reports and triage and patient intake records following the 2005 Pakistan Kashmir earthquake.
  • Police tracked missing persons following the 2008 Chengdu-Sitzuan (China) earthquake, locating 42 survivors and reuniting them with their families.
  • Nearly 700 organizations responded to about 10,000 assistance and information requests through the platform in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
  • U.S. Library of Medicine tracked missing persons from the 2011 Joplin, Mo., tornado in coordination with state public safety officials.
  • Government agencies and community groups collaborated through the platform in 2011 Tohoku, Japan earthquake and tsunami response and recovery efforts.
  • The Red Cross incorporated the platform in an "IBM Smarter Command Center" in response to the 2012 Chilean wildfires.

Sahana Software Foundation lead developer Fran Boon (front, center) uses the Sahana platform to assist in managing requests for meals from an “Occupy Sandy kitchen” in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood where volunteers have prepared and distributed thousands of meals daily to dozens of sites serving Sandy survivorsGrassroots Effect
The platform has been a very effective tool for government-wide relief efforts. But it also empowers grassroots-level recovery, says Sahana Foundation CEO Mark Prutsalis – whose Brooklyn neighborhood is in proximity to some of the worst damage from Sandy.

"The burned out blocks on Breezy Point and downtown Rockaway Beach reminded me of the torching of Dili, East Timor, during independence in 1999, and the flooding, beach erosion and water damage is slightly reminiscent of, incredibly enough, the  tsunami damage I witnessed in India and Sri Lanka," says Prutsalis. "Experiencing the recovery has convinced me that in 2013, traditional top-down disaster relief is incapable of preparing for and responding to the scale of these disasters."

The scope of Superstorm Sandy's damage and subsequent demand for relief personnel and supplies overwhelmed New York City's emergency management structure, even with its coastal storm plan, Prutsalis says. But Sahana helped diffuse the pressure by enabling "highly effective community-based organizations like Occupy Sandy to rapidly establish community trust and effective assistance networks in the weeks following the storm. The result has been the most effective, efficient and flexible response I have witnessed in 20 years as a disaster relief professional."

Building a User Community
Sahana supported a volunteer hub in Staten Island that provided hot food distribution, donation drop offs, supply pickups, volunteer dispatches, legal-financial aid and moreIn seven years, Sahana has become well-known in disaster management circles. It has been utilized extensively the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, and New York City's Office of Emergency Management uses it to coordinate and manage emergency shelters.

Effectively applying the platform requires changing organizational workflow, as the immediate aftermath of a disaster is the worst time to introduce a new technology, says Raschid.  "Ideally, an organization or community would adopt Sahana in a pre-disaster mode and use its features for relief planning and preparedness training. So, we focus on strengthening existing partnerships and forging new ones. Ultimately, this is an open source community that needs to be built by individuals."

Balkind concurs: "All the technology in the world is worthless without the folks in affected areas doing relief work and practicing mutual aid."

"A software solution based on Sahana Eden isn't going to muck-out a house, deliver diapers or give people the experience of personal connection," he says. "But what it will do is organize information critical for all those tasks taking place. As an open source platform, there are no licensing restrictions and the source code is accessible to anyone who wants to view, use and modify it."

Raschid's grassroots Sahana promotion has targeted, among others, participants of the Grace Hopper Conference for Women in Computing. "Sahana has been involved in an extremely successful Open Source Day initiative at the conference since 2010," she says.

Raschid is helping students understand the transformational role of new technology, like Sahana, as a faculty mentor for the Smith School's Technology and Business Transformation Fellows Program. She also plans an internship at UMD through Smith's Center for Social Value Creation to engage MBA and undergraduate students to help raise Sahana's profile.
"We need to do a lot more," she says. "We want government agencies and grassroots groups in every community equipped and prepared."