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Sahana FOSS Disaster Management System

The Sahana Free and Open Source Disaster Management System was conceived during the 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami. The system was developed to help manage the disaster and was deployed by a government's Center of National Operations (CNO), which included the Center of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA). Based on the success of this initial application and the dire need for good disaster management solutions, particularly to handle large-scale disasters, Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) funded a second phase through LSF (Lanka Software Foundation) to generalize the application for global use and to help in any large-scale disaster. The project has now grown to become globally recognized, with deployments in many other disasters such as the Asian Quake in Pakistan (2005), Southern Leyte Mudslide Disaster in Philippines (2006) and the Jogjarkata Earthquake in Indonesia (2006). The phase II funded by SIDA did much to foster the capability of the project and the global community, now 170+ strong around it.

Following the Tsunami, the system was rebuilt from scratch on the stable Free and Open Source technology stack, AMP (Apache, MySQL, PHP/Perl). The system is available for free for anyone to download and customize and is distributed under the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL).

Sahana Project Goals

The scope of the Sahana project is to be an integrated set of pluggable, Web-based disaster management applications that provide solutions to large-scale humanitarian problems in the relief phase of a disaster.

The aspirations of the project are captured in the following goals:

  1. Primary: Help alleviate human suffering and help save lives through the efficient use of IT during a disaster
  2. Enhance collaboration between diverse set of actors from Government, Emergency Management, NGOs, INGOs, spontaneous volunteers and victims themselves in responding effectively to a disaster
  3. Empower the victims and their next of kin and better enable them to help themselves
  4. Protect victim data and reduce the opportunity for data abuse
  5. Provide a Free and Open Source solution end-to-end available to everyone

Subsequent phases are planned to extend the scope to the prevention, rehabilitation and reconstruction phases. Work is already underway to develop new modules in these areas.

Functionality and features

Sahana is a suite of Web-based sub-applications that provides solutions to different problems with regard to the information required for managing certain coordination problems during post-disaster. Beyond being a database of information the value it provides is in the well-structured and usable interface and data design making the management of information simple. The Sahana project currently has 8 mature modules that address common disaster coordination and collaboration problems. They are the Missing Person Registry, Organization Registry, Request/Pledge Management System, Shelter Registry, Inventory Management, Catalogue, Situation Awareness and Volunteer coordination. As Sahana uses a plugin, modular architecture it can be deployed with just a small sub-set of these modules as decided by the administrator of the Sahana installation.

Main modules

The basic description of some of the main modules is given below

Sahana Missing Person Registry

The Missing Person Registry is an online bulletin board of missing and found people. It not only captures information about the people missing and found, but the information of the person seeking them is also captured, which adds to the chances of people finding each other. For example, if two members of a family unit are looking for the head of the family, we can use this data at least to connect those two family members.

Sahana Organization Registry

The Organization Registry is a collaborative “Who is doing what, where” tool and keeps track of all the relief organizations and civil society groups working in the disaster region. It captures not only the places where they are active, but also information on the range of services they are providing in each area eventually resulting in a report of gaps and a drill-down by sector and region.

Sahana Shelter Registry

This sub-application of Sahana keeps track of the location of all the shelters in the region and some basic data on the facilities they might have and the number of people in them. It also provides a geospacial view to plot the location of the camps in the affected area.

Sahana Request/Aid Management System

The Sahana Request/Aid Management System is a central online repository where all relief organizations, relief workers, government agents and camps can effectively match requests of aid and supplies to pledges of support. It effectively looks like an online aid trading system tracking request to fulfillment.

Sahana Volunteer Coordination System

The Volunteer Coordination System especially helps NGOs keep track of all their volunteers, their contact information, project allocation, availability and skills to help them allocate them effectively especially in a disaster.

Sahana Situation Awareness

This module gives an overview of the situation and allows people to add information on what is happening on the ground. It features the ability to plot a note and a photo with additional information on a Map, so that people can collaboratively capture the current disaster situation.

Technical Features

After the Tsunami, the Sahana system was rebuilt from scratch under the Free and Open Source technology stack, LAMP. The new architectural framework provides the following features:

  • 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.

Alignment to Free and Open Source Software (FOSS)

There are multiple reasons why Free and Open Source software finds a natural fit in Disaster Management applications in general (of which disaster management is but one) and why there seem to be limited proprietary alternatives available. These reasons are in alignment with its more generic umbrella of Humanitarian-FOSS (described later).

The main reasons are:

  • Cost: Very few countries and organizations today can afford to invest a lot of resources in disaster management when there is no disaster present. While this is obviously true of poor, developing nations, it is also true of richer, developed countries. This is because there are always higher priority items that need funding compared to disaster preparations for a disaster that may or may not happen. A FOSS approach provides a low budget, volunteer-driven and global way to build such systems
  • Delays in Approvals: There is not much commercial interest in developing solutions in this domain, because often during humanitarian disasters proprietary software licenses are given at no cost. With FOSS there need not even be any delays in getting permission for a license as anyone has the freedom to download the software and use it.
  • A Natural Public Good: Such systems should be shared, developed and owned globally, because the problems they address are all too common for any country dealing with a disaster effectively, making such software a global public good. The FOSS development and community mechanisms have a proven track record in building such goods.
  • Passionate Volunteer Community: The global community of IT volunteers can contribute their goodwill to such causes by using their skills to develop and customize FOSS for the disaster situations. In fact Sahana and Humanitarian-FOSS represents the merger of two passionate volunteer communities with strong ethics on contributing goodwill.
  • Transparency: As in conflict situations, during disasters segregation arises between governments, NGOs and INGOs. The main reason is often the urgent circumstances, the lack of transparency and the lack of coordination capacity. So an open, transparent and globally owned system is more likely to be trusted to mediate between the groups. It will also help organizations self-distribute themselves based on what other organizations are doing in the affected region.
  • Ease of Customization: Finally no two disasters are alike. There are often localizations and customizations needed for the software before it can get applied effectively to the disasters. Some of these localizations include adding additional metadata about the entities in the system or translating the system to handle entry in a particular language. With FOSS, anyone is free to make the needed customizations without restriction.

Going the free/open source software way can address the above concerns, and using the open source development model, it is possible to develop this software at a much reduced cost compared to pure proprietary development models. Thus if a small team is driving such a project and ensuring the quality of the product, then it is possible to get a lot of assistance from the global IT community to make those systems truly exceptional.

Flexible deployment strategy

The Sahana system can be deployed on a variety of models, ranging from operating totally within a single notebook computer (with or without a portable Wireless LAN) to a fully distributed, networked platform.

Large-scale deployment

Often the disaster coordination hub is far from the affected region, making network-based operation possible even though the affected region might have their telecommunications infrastructure destroyed. Access can be provided in the affected region with the support of groups such as Ericsson who provide satellite-based wireless LAN connectivity to networks.

Lightweight deployment

If such infrastructure does not exist, Sahana, being a “lightweight” solution, can efficiently scale down to a standalone laptop and a secured portable wireless access point for short-range network collaboration. Such a requirement is often the case in a disaster coordination hub when there is no Internet or power during the initial moments post-disaster. The Sahana system has been tested to work with the above equipment at about 130W, which can be easily supported by a solar panel should power not be available. Additionally none of the applications depends on being connected to the Internet.

Sahana also has the ability to synchronize data between multiple instances of Sahana. This allows for responders or district offices to capture data on victims in the field and seamlessly exchange the data with the other field offices, headquarters or responders, using USB flash drives or CDs.

Past 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
  • Yogjakarta Earthquake - Indonesia 2006 - Deployed by ACS, urRemote and Indonesian whitewater association and Indonesian Rescue Source
  • Peru Earthquake - Peru 2007 - Deployed and localized into Spanish.
  • Myanmar Cyclone - Myanmar 2008- Currently working in progress to deploy and localize into Burmese.

Historic Trigger

The tsunami that hit Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, resulted in a massive outpouring of support for the relief of the nearly one million people that it affected. When literally thousands of people from every conceivable multilateral organization and from many other places arrived to help, it became clear immediately that without information technology it would be impossible to coordinate their efforts to maximize the impact on the affected people. The Sahana project was born.

Despite the tremendous value this type of software can bring to disaster management, there are very few systems that exist today and none of them is widely deployed. In fact, the most widely used system appears to be non-Web based and uses completely outdated technology. While there are indeed various specialized parts that exist, there does not exist a single cohesive system that organizations such as United Nations Disaster Assistance and Coordination (UNDAC) deploys at every disaster situation they go to.

Extract from the Dr Sanjiva Weerawarana's blog on Sahana Inception (phase I) and the start of Phase II:

Sunday, December 26th, 2004. Tsunami hits Indonesia, Sri Lanka and many other Asian countries. In the first week of the tunami, 1m people (or 5% of our population) was homeless. 2/3rds of Sri Lanka’s coast was affected in some way. Later on we find that nearly 40,000 of our people have died.

Tuesday, December 28th, 2004. Many different organizations in Sri Lanka start efforts to write various bits of software to help manage the disaster. (This bit of the story was repeated in other countries- India, Indonesia, Thailand etc..)

Wednesday, December 29th, 2004. Many of these folks get together at the ICT Agency in Narahenpita, Sri Lanka to discuss ways of putting the software all together to make it easier to manage the situation. That nite I called the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s CIOs office (after finding the phone number in a powerpoint presentation he had done proposing developing a disaster management software system) and asked for whatever software they had. I was told that FEMA had no software that could help .. they only had software that was used to cut checks to people after hurricanes.

In the 3-4 weeks that followed, many many individuals, universities and software companies and Sri Lanka Telecom contributed to what became known as Sahana. Amongst the IT companies, Virtusa was the leading contributor with more than 75 of their engineering staff helping at some time or the other. While most contributors to the initial effort were from Sri Lanka, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the urgent support we got from folks at Tigris.org (which we didn’t end up using) and later SourceForge. We desperately needed a code repository and other infra (like mailing lists) and these folks willingly and urgently came out of their holiday slumber and got everything that we needed. Special mention also needs to go IBM’s Crisis Response Team lead by Brent Woodworth, who were then regular visitors to Sri Lanka. From day 1 that entire team supported, encouraged and cheered on the Sahana effort. In fact a good part of the initial development was done on 15 notebooks that IBM donated within a week or so of the tsunami.

This joint effort was organized and managed by the Lanka Software Foundation. In the early days we had a 24×7 operation and the first bits of software went into production use in about a week. Over time more and more capabilities were added and used in various ways. After about 3 months this initial phase was completed and the software and its deployment reached a certain level of equilibrium.

In the meantime, it became clear to us that there was a huge hole in the world of disaster management software. The state of the art that the UN team that came to Sri Lanka with was a system called SUMA- something written on FoxPRO. (Anyone remember FoxPRO? Yes, that was the pre-relational desktop database system from Microsoft!) IBM had some stuff based on Lotus Notes but it wasn’t easily deployable, scalable and, most importantly, didn’t embrace the Web. The tsunami gave us a unique opportunity to look at disaster management in the modern world: even though there was sooo much death and damage, the communication network was in tact. Cell phones worked. The IP networks worked. Land-lines worked. A modern disaster management system must work in a connected environment .. and if communication has indeed failed (as often happens in earthquake type disasters) its now quite easy to airdrop a box that sets up a local communication network with a satellite uplink. Clearly, there was a huge need for modern software that could live in this world and help first responders and follow-up recovery folks be more effective at responding and managing a disaster.

We were not going to let Sahana die; we decided we are going to make it into something the world can reuse readily. “We” at the time was primarily Jivaka Weeratunge, co-founder of LSF and its then volunteer COO, and myself. Chamindra de Silva, who had been one of the original people from Virtusa who started the people registry which became a key component of Sahana, agreed to leave his job at Virtusa and take a 1-year position in LSF to take Sahana forward if we could get the funding for it. Chamindra became part of the “let’s take sahana forward” team.

On February 11th 2005 I wrote the following in a cover letter on the proposal we submitted to Ms. Asa Heijne, First Secretary of the Swedish Embassy in Colombo along with a proposal seeking Rs. 8.548m (approximately $85k) in funding from the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) to re-do Sahana:

“Further to our discussions in late January, enclosed please find a proposal to further develop the Sahana Relief Management system into a fully reusable, globalized relief management system. We believe the potential global impact of such software will be tremendous and view this as an opportunity to help the world at a time when the world is helping Sri Lanka so willingly and widely.”

SIDA approved our proposal and Sahana phase II started with that funding on August 1st 2005. I also want to acknowledge the contribution of Per-Einar Troften in getting this funding- Per-Einar is in SIDA in Sweden. He and Asa have (with the grant of $100k to start the Apache Axis2 project and the Sahana grant) singlehandedly (two-handedly?) changed the role of Sri Lanka in the FOSS world. If not for their trust in what LSF was proposing to do Sahana wouldn’t exist in its current shape today.

I must also acknowledge LSF’s co-founder and then COO Jivaka Weeratunge- he’s the one who helped manage LSF and make sure that we ran a superbly tight and clear ship which made it easier for a funding agency to trust us. Oh yeah, Jivaka was a total volunteer doing all of that, as is the entire LSF Board. Jivaka was a key part of the strategy behind LSF overall and then both and Sahana as we took them forward."

Full Reference:

Sahana Structure

The Sahana organization structure includes a Sahana board, a Project Management Committee (PMC), Committers and the larger Community. The description of each is given below:

  • Board of Directors - The Sahana Board is responsible for sustaining and promoting the adoption and growth of the Sahana. The Sahana Board will actively seek to engage with private sector, academic institutions and public sector partners in promoting the adoption and support of Sahana. The Sahana Board will establish a mechanism for evaluating the success of Sahana deployments and for capturing issues about Sahana development and implementation.
  • Project Management Committee (PMC) - The role of the Project Management Committee (PMC) is to ensure that the community is behaving and governing itself in a manner that is consistent with the objectives of making Sahana a successful open source project. This includes operational, legal and procedural oversight on Sahana releases
  • Committers - Committers are those individuals who have gained the trust of the main contributors to Sahana and have direct access to contribute to the code, documentation or other Sahana resources.
  • Community - The largest group in Sahana consists of the larger community of about 200+ people helping to promote, provide feedback and apply Sahana
  • Sponsors - The organizations and groups that keep us operational and running by donating funds, infrastructure and resources

Humanitarian-FOSS Community

Sahana also spawned a concept and community founded by a humanitarian consultant, Paul Currion, and the Sahana project lead, Chamindra de Silva, based on the more generic ideals of Humanitarian-FOSS where the ideals of FOSS are applied for building humanitarian-ICT applications or applications built to help alleviate human suffering. The community consists of a mailing list and a WIKI with membership reaching 250+ Emergency Management practitioners, Humanitarian Consultants, Crisis Management Academics and Free and Open Source developers from around the world. Domain representation in this group includes members from ISCRAM, UNDP, Red Cross, IBM, Saravodaya (largest NGO in Sri Lanka), Australian Fire Services, etc.

The concept has also been recognized specifically by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), where it inspired a new FSF Award for Projects of Social Benefit, which is broader in coverage than humanitarian-FOSS and by the UNDP IOSN on their Humanitarian-FOSS Portal.

Research

The project has also spurred research in diverse areas. Professor Louiqa Raschid, University of Maryland also the current Chair of the Sahana board, is leading/guiding the team in Sahana and Disaster Management research. Sahana has been presented at numerous conferences/workshops/events and already has one paper accepted for an international conference.

Research plays an important role in Sahana due to lack of previous research in ICT for Disaster Management. See Sahana Research WIKI for a comprehensive list of Sahana publications/presentations and research efforts.

Recognition & Awards

References

External links

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