Thursday, May 8, 2008

InSTEDD and the Myanmar Cyclone

I don't write often but I wanted to let everyone know what InSTEDD is doing in the Myanmar Cyclone response.

1. We have a long-standing working relationship with the open-source disaster management tool called “Sahana”, developed and managed through a group in Sri Lanka. We received a request from them for help early yesterday after Sahana had, in turn, received a request from inside Myanmar. That request was asking for Sahana as the disaster response coordination software to use for the humanitarian response, starting immediately and probably continuing for several months. We agreed to help, of course, and we’ve installed Sahana on the same system we use for our own website at Rackspace and it’s up and working now.

2. We heard late last night that we needed to localize Sahana into Burmese so that we could engage local staff in the response coordination process. We have now located some translators (not enough) for the 3500 words and phrases, and built tools to help break up the phrases into manageable chunks and then weave them back together again. Those translators are within our Google partners, our Mekong Basin Disease Surveillance System contacts in Asia, Stanford, World Vision, and more. An excellent example of crowdsourcing and networking and all happening literally overnight.

3. We’re also talking with the IBM Crisis Response Team that are trying to get into Burma and making sure we have the ability to link the peripheral Sahana server they'll have in Myanmar to our central Sahana server here in the US. We have a request pending with Google engineers, working with our own dev team, to help use our Mesh4x sync tools (used to connect databases to databases and systems to systems) to link center-to-edge in Sahana, making sure bandwidth is optimized in Myanmar and those outside Myanmar have a large pipe for access onto our hosted server at Rackspace.

4. We’ve had a request to push our internal GeoChat tool out early, really before several important features are established, and we’ve agreed in the interests of time and urgency to let that happen, even with a little risk to our reputation. GeoChat allows SMS messages to appear interactively on a map in any system (GoogleEarth, Visual Earth, Google Maps, GeoFusion, ESRI, GeoRSS feeds, KML feeds) and has proven so useful, even in current form, that the teams in Myanmar consider it worthwhile to take this relatively immature version even if only from a safety standpoint. It still works, very well, but it's neither elegant nor robust. But it will soon be both.

We still need Burmese translators for localizing Sahana, so please drop a note into Contact Us if you think you might be able to help.

This is a remarkable disaster, made very complicated by the communications restrictions placed on international responders by the Myanmar government. We hope those restrictions ease soon or this is going to be a very difficult response with excess deaths that will eventually be quantified and published.

I’ll keep updates going here.