jump to navigation

Hackers and Disaster Relief November 17, 2009

Posted by ddouthitt in Industry.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

Disaster relief is an area of concern close to my heart; amateur radio operators have been part of disaster relief for years. When things like Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Andrew, 9/11, and more happen, it is the disaster relief workers such as folks from ARES, the American Red Cross (or the International Red Cross), Doctors Without Borders (or Medicins Sans Frontieres), and many others that help and provide needed services.

What can a programmer – a hacker – do in these cases? During the first ever Random Hacks of Kindness conference put on by Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, NASA, the World Bank, and the PR firm Second Muse, programmers from all over put their talents to providing software and other solutions to problems faced in disasters.

The event came about after the Crisis Camp held in Washington, D.C. in June 2009.

The only thing that I keep thinking about many technological solutions is that assumptions are often made that will not be true in practice:

  • The Internet is available. The Internet will likely be unavaiable, since many of the affected sites will be data centers, and perhaps even Internet central hubs like MAE West and MAE East and others. Any Internet bandwidth that is available will likely be saturated during the immediate disaster aftermath.
  • Cellular services will be available. The same problems that exist with the Internet will exist for cellular services as well. During 9/11 the cellular system was nonfunctional, if not because of the massive traffic hit, but also because the World Trade Center towers held major cell-phone tower installations for the area.
  • Electricity will be available. In many cases, it is electrical lines that will be down and the entire city – or more – can be without power. During Hurricane Rita, this was certainly the case.
  • Telephones will be available. Like the others, any available phone services will be overwhelmed, both from within and from without – even as the available space for phone calls is reduced.

It is for these reasons that amateur radio operators still provide a valuable service – after all, every year they practice operating with nothing more than they can carry. Wikipedia has a nice article on Field Day.

The technological problems that I remember hearing about from the aftermath of Hurricane Rita was that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was unable to handle the influx of requests, and the server – Windows-based – groaned under the weight.

There was also the “I’m alright!” aspect: letting people know that one was alright. Several web sites sprung up that let people know that loved ones were alright, and where they were.

During a disaster, it seems to me that most technology services will be either severely curtailed or impossible; amateur radio and other self-sustaining environments will be of the biggest help.

What would be helpful? Here are some ideas:

  • Mesh-based mobile phone networks. Mobile phone towers are likely to be unavailable and normal methods of communication overwhelmed. Mesh-based networks do not rely on a large and static infrastructure, but rather a “crowd” of tiny rebroadcast stations – such as other phone users.
  • Self-contained portable data centers. Data centers will inevitably be affected by many disasters; getting a business back up and running will take time. Disaster services will also be able to use the services of a portable data center to provide services.
  • Data restoration services. Businesses will find that their backups (if they have any) will need to be retrieved and restored quickly.
  • Low power devices. With electricity at a premium, low-power ready to go servers and workstations will be of great help.