Can open source help people in need?

You always read about people who try and change the world for the better, but rarely do you actually see people who have actually done it, nor do you ever see it's effects on people.

I recently visited the offices of WSO2 in Colombo Sri Lanka, and I started asking about the Tsunami that hit on Christmas Day of 2004 and it's effects on the people of Sri Lanka. I learned of the thousands that died, and the countries tourism is still feeling the effects from the Tsunami. People in the various hotels I stayed at told me that in essence they are still only at about 50% of where they were previous to the Tsunami. On top of this, a cease-fire with the Tamil Tigers which boosted tourism has ended, and people are staying away for safety concerns. So it's been a double-whammy for the Sri Lankan tourist industry.

One interesting discovery in my talks with the folks at WSO2 about the Tsunami, was the fact they wrote a piece of software called Sahana - billed as an Open Source Disaster Management software. Several WSO2 employees, and members from the Lanka Software Foundation started by WSO2's CEO to encourage open source development and contributions from the island state. Now, how can a bunch of coders actually help people in a disaster? I mean, software can't bandage people, can't feed them can it? No certainly not, but it can help coordinate all of this, and it can help find lost people, among the many list of tasks that Sahana can do. You'd be surprised just how much logistics and coordination of efforts are involved in managing a disaster situation - usually, each disaster, the various NGO's and Gov't Agencies that parachute in to a site do this all over each time, wasting valuable time and energy that could/should be spent actually helping people.

Here is a list of the modules that Sahana provides:

  1. Missing Person Registry - Helping to reduce trauma by effectively finding missing persons
  2. Organization Registry - Coordinating and balancing the distribution of relief organizations in the affected areas and connecting relief groups allowing them to operate as one
  3. Request Management System - Registering and Tracking all incoming requests for support and relief upto fulfillment and helping donors connect to relief requirements
  4. Camp Registry - Tracking the location and numbers of victims in the various camps and temporary shelters setup all around the affected area
  5. Volunteer Management - Coordinate the contact info, skills, assignments and availability of volunteers and responders
  6. Inventory Management - Tracking the location, quantities, expiry of supplies stored for utilization in a disaster
  7. Situation Awareness - Providing a GIS overview of the situation at hand for the benefit of the decision makers
This is a pretty impressive set of modules that come out of the box with Sahana. The fact that it's completely open source means a disaster relief agency can take this base package and extend or enhance it to suit it's needs.

Sahana has garnered it's fair share of rewards for its innovative use of technology applied to solve a real-world need and help in need - listed here:
  1. Sahana won the Free Software Foundation Award for Social Benefit in 2006 amongst other contenders such as OLPC, Project Gutenburg and Wikipedia
  2. Software 2006, USA - Good Samaritian Award - 2006
  3. Network Wold Article 2006 on Top Open Source Companies to WatchIdentified as one of the top 10 Open Source "companies" to watch by Network world
  4. Interview of core team in BBC program "code breakers" - 2006
  5. One of the three top finalists in the Health category in Stockholm Challenge - 2006
  6. Sourceforge Project of the Month for June 2006
  7. Sahana inspired the new Free Software Foundation Award for Social Benefit - 2005
  8. Redhat User Award - Given to the founder of Lanka Software Foundation Dr Sanjiva Weerawarna - 2005
Sahana is built on top of a flexible, and pluggable LAMP stack, that technically has the following at it's core:
  • Plugin Architecture: Allows for the independent development modules by 3rd party groups easy whilst making integration simple
  • Low hardware Requirements: Can run standalone on a low spec laptop without dependency on the internet
  • Mobility: Can be cloned for field use and data synchronized by peers or between a field installation and a central server
  • Portable USB: Can run without installation from a USB drive as a Portable Application where the program and code is contain in the USB flash drive
  • Localization Ready: Allows for the system to be translated into any language.
  • Granular Security: Access Control can be specified by role, module and action performed
  • Adaptable User Interface: Allows for the look and feel of the system to adapt to the device that views it and it can be viewed through a PDA
  • Horizontally Scalable: Allows for the system to accommodate a greater load by adding more Sahana servers in parallel cluster.
Sahana has been deployed many times since the 2004 Tsunami. Here is a list of all the known deployments:
  • Tsunami - Sri Lanka 2005 - Officially deployed in the CNO for the Government of Sri Lanka
  • AsianQuake - Pakistan 2005 - Officially deployed with NADRA for the Government of Pakistan
  • Southern Leyte Mudslide Disaster - Philippines 2006 - Officially deployed with the NDCC and ODC for the Government of Philippines
  • Sarvodaya - Sri Lanka 2006 - Deployed for Sri Lanka's largest NGO
  • Terre des Hommes - Sri Lanka 2006 - Deployed with new Child Protection Module
  • Yogjarkata Earthquake - Indonesia 2006 - Deployed by ACS, urRemote and Indonesian whitewater association and Indonesian Rescue Source
So, if you're like me and the last time you saw a disaster and wondered about how YOU could help, well, if you have a passion for coding, this could just be the way for you to make a meaningful contribution. The distributed and collective model of open source is an ideal platform upon which many commercial solutions have been built, and this is a nice example of how open source is being used to help real people in their direst moments of need.

More info on Sahana can be found on wikipedia.


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