Emergency response information systems: emerging trends and technologies: Open source software for disaster management

A new journal article on Sahana – “a free and open source disaster management information system developed in Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami” – sheds new light on the nature and application of FOSS in humanitarian aid.

I’ve long been a fan of Sahana‘s vision, and given below are some of my links to articles on the system I’ve penned before and an interview at Strong Angel III with Chamindra de Silva, a chief instigator of and contributor to Sahana.

Sahana Deployment

The ACM paper has this diagram on Sahana’s deployment which I found interesting, particularly because it places Government agencies and NGOs in the same WAN of trust. In theory of course this is fine, but with the recent allegations of a rather serious nature against the government of aiding and abetting the abduction and disappearance of children in the East of Sri Lanka in particular, it would be less than desirable to have sensitive Camp Registry and Victim information that can be accessed by paramilitary groups (working with the State armed forces) who may use this information to do more harm than good and, at the very least, are not known for their partiality to information security.

I’m not sure about access protocols and internal data security in Sahana, but clearly, placing both the Government and I/NGO in the same network of trust is downright dangerous in Sri Lanka today. The central problem that arises thereof, and not limited to Sahana but all ICT4Peace and humanitarian aid system particularly in conflict zones is how to both keep the information generation, storage and dissemination as open as possible, but also as secure as possible. It is a challenge I’ve noted earlier and that I am very interested to discover how Sahana will grapple with in the future.

I wish them well.

See also:
Strong Angel III – Interview with Chamindra de Silva from Sahana
Open Source Disaster Recovery: Case Studies of networked collaboration
Humanitarian aid and peacebuilding

3 comments on “Emergency response information systems: emerging trends and technologies: Open source software for disaster management

  1. Chamindra de Silva
    March 29, 2007 at 10:35 pm #

    Just a comment that not all sub-applications of Sahana need be shared and sharing can be customized based on the scenario and country. In Sri Lanka’s situation sharing people data across NGO/Government boundaries is indeed tricky.

    For example in Sri Lanka, I would expect NGOs to be very protective of children data with the government, so they can just use that application between a group of trusted NGOs to improve the efficiency of their “local” information network.

    However for example in terms of “who is doing what where”, I feel in Sri Lanka’s context it still would be good for Government and NGOs to collaborate at a high level so that relief agencies with a collective knowledge of what is needed and what has been covered, can better and more effectively self distribute themselves across the affected region.

    The important thing is that we improve our information sharing network between relief agencies in Sri Lanka (e.g. Sarvodaya and Red Cross) such that ultimately the benefit is passed to the victims avoiding as much wastage on the way. A lot of mis-trust can also be avoided this way between relief groups as a lack of information breeds mis-understandings. Most people in this domain are driven to help victims and a lot of differences can be avoided through information sharing when that is our primary goal.

  2. ict4peace
    March 30, 2007 at 2:22 pm #

    “Just a comment that not all sub-applications of Sahana need be shared and sharing can be customized based on the scenario and country.”

    Great to hear. What continues to be challenging is the process through which what to share, when, how and with whom is decided – that in my experience, is more daunting that the technical challenges.

    “For example in Sri Lanka, I would expect NGOs to be very protective of children data with the government, so they can just use that application between a group of trusted NGOs to improve the efficiency of their “local” information network.”

    Quite right – though there is also the danger that each INGO develops its own database with scant regard for information sharing with others in the field, fuelled by fears of their own information falling into the wrong hands. Clearly, the need to share information is vital in any post-disaster scenario, but so are the rights of those affected. This is something you will recall we discussed briefly in Strong Angel III, and will take operational experience coupled with technical expertise to address in a manner that attempts to forge a via media between the extremes of totally open systems and totally closed systems.

    “However for example in terms of “who is doing what where”, I feel in Sri Lanka’s context it still would be good for Government and NGOs to collaborate at a high level so that relief agencies with a collective knowledge of what is needed and what has been covered, can better and more effectively self distribute themselves across the affected region.”

    Agree – but do they really? Aside from all the hype, the reports, the reams of lessons supposedly learnt as published in monographs and organisational brochures, what really has changed on the ground? In Sri Lanka, we seem to be more interested in erecting Buddha statues along the coastline in the South than in any (arguably less divine and more scientific) disaster warning system!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. ICT4Peace and Humanitarian FOSS featured in PeaceIT! « ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace) - December 21, 2007

    […] issue also contains an excellent essay by Chamindra de Silva on Humanitarian FOSS, a field of research and practice that he and his team, responsible for Sahana, have helped define […]

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