Open source tsunami disaster software promises help

Kiwi consultancy involved in enhancing the system

The Sahana project was originally developed to help cope with the disastrous consequences of 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. A free and open source disaster management solution, the integrated system is a set of web-based disaster management applications for managing information before, during and after a disaster.

The system was deployed in Sri Lanka, after the tsunami battered the country. It was then used again in Pakistan, to help after the country was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2005, and then in the Philippines, in the wake of the mudslides in 2006.

The New Zealand-based Kestrel Group, a risk and emergency management consultancy, is part of the Sahana development community. Gavin Treadgold, director of the Kestrel Group, travelled to Columbo, the capital of Sri Lanka, in September to participate in a workshop aimed at improving Sahana. An expert on emergency management and IT, Treadgold met other domain experts to see how the system could be made more efficient.

“The programmers who initially built Sahana had little experience of the issues that you face in disasters. Because of the immediate demands after the tsunami the programmers built [Sahana] on the fly, [and] very little planning went into the programming,” says Treadgold.

The initial development was managed by the Lanka Software Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to encourage Sri Lankan developers to participate in global open-source software projects. With the aid of more than 80 volunteer programmers, the first phase of Sahana was developed in just three weeks, says Treadgold.

Over 26,000 Sri Lankan families were tracked using Sahana’s people registry. The system has four key modules that were developed during the first phase, says Treadgold. These are: a people registry, for registering, tracking and matching victims of a disaster; an organisation registry, for registering, tracking and connecting non-governmental organisations involved in disaster response; a camp management system, for registering and tracking camps and a management system, for recording, tracking and matching requests and offers of assistance.

The domain experts reviewed the initial phase of Sahana to help them develop a more scalable and modular solution to the one the programmers built under the pressure of the immediate problems resulting from the Boxing Day Tsunami, says Treadgold.

Planned additional modules include a messaging system; a child protection system; data import and export of Sahana data and public data; disaster impact assessment; volunteer co-ordination, and a geo-spatial framework to name just a few.

Sahana was created in such a way as to enable it to be deployed in any country using the bare minimum of computer hardware and communications. This contrasts with commercial disaster management systems, which are often sustainable only by the world’s wealthiest countries, Treadgold says.

But because the project is currently volunteer-based the main challenge is to keep developing key functionalities, he says. Funding from governments or aid organisations, or corporations would make it possible to establish an organisation around Sahana and, with such, develop a dedicated core team of programmers.

“The sooner we can get funding, and get an organisation and management structure in place, [the sooner we can] pay and direct developers to get that development done. We can make Sahana into a sustainable and self-funding project.”

Treadgold says that some of the big players in the IT industry have expressed interest in supporting the project, including IBM, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

“That is very reassuring and promising. We are still trying to figure out the best way to work with these companies,” he says.

Because Sahana is an open-source, low-cost system, which uses open interoperability standards, organisations can choose to use it as a disaster recovery, business continuity and emergency management application, says Treadgold.

“We are keen to develop modules that businesses can use to coordinate with employees if they have to send them home during, say, a pandemic,” he says.

Organisations are reluctant to spend a lot of money on disaster recovery software that is rarely, if ever, used, says Treadgold. This means Sahana could be an attractive option for many people.

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Tags open sourcedisaster recoveryBusiness ContinuitytsunamiSpecial IDmoduleskestrel group

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