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).
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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."
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 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.