Magazine article Information Today

Disaster Response: Technology Makes a Difference

Magazine article Information Today

Disaster Response: Technology Makes a Difference

Article excerpt

When disaster strikes, one of the most critical components for aid organizations, rescue workers, and affected populations is maintaining open lines of communication. However, the infrastructure that communication depends upon is frequently among the hardest hit areas during a disaster. To confront this major challenge of disaster relief, new communication and collaboration technologies are being re-purposed from the social and business worlds to help respond to disasters with greater efficacy and speed.

Good Samaritans

On Friday, March 11, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake beneath the floor of the Pacific Ocean sent a cataclysmic tsunami racing toward Japan. Just minutes after the initial earthquake, that tsunami reached the shores of Japan, devastating more than 100,000 buildings and claiming the lives of 12,000 victims. In addition to the loss of human life, the tsunami badly damaged the infrastructure of the country, washing out roads, battering the nation's electrical grid, and inflicting severe damage on three of the country's nuclear reactors.

In the days following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, companies worldwide rushed to give aid and provide assistance to the primary relief organizations working on the ground to help the people of Japan. Among the roster of companies assisting in the efforts were many high-tech and internet companies, including major global companies such as Sony, Google, Microsoft, and Cisco.

Some companies used their unique resources to help raise funds for the relief efforts: Social game developer Zynga, creators of the popular games FarmVille and CityVille, partnered with international aid organization Save the Children to raise more than $1 million through the sale of special virtual goods in its various games. Other companies created tools and services to assist evacuees. Google deployed its Person Finder service, which it originally developed in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, to help survivors locate friends, family, and loved ones.

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Emergency Collaboration

One company making a major impact in Japan was Microsoft. The firm has a history of assisting companies during natural disasters, with recent examples including the Haiti earthquake as well as the flooding in Pakistan in July 2010. In Japan, the company teamed up with international organizations to support the efforts of relief workers on the ground by providing a portfolio of software tools to connect lifesaving resources with the people who needed them.

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Claire Bonilla, Microsoft's senior director of disaster management, says the company was contacted just 3 days after the catastrophic earthquake with a request to help support food distribution by Second Harvest Japan, the largest food bank in the country.

"We first gained a request from another nonprofit, Aidmatrix, which works closely with Second Harvest Japan, that had mentioned that their on-premise website capability was limited," says Bonilla. "They needed to ... give real-time communication updates, both to people trying to donate food and organizations trying to donate food and to people trying to get food."

In response, Microsoft deployed a collection of collaboration, information sharing, social networking, and web publishing tools uniquely suited to disaster response that the company has assembled over the years. Bonilla explains that the company keeps this disaster response portfolio essentially on standby, ready to be deployed at a moment's notice. The services can often be brought up and running in less than 1 hour.

As part of the portfolio, Microsoft deployed a collaboration and information portal powered by Windows Azure, the company's cloud computing platform. Second Harvest used the portal to disseminate situational updates about food supplies, shelters, and radiation conditions throughout the affected areas. …

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