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A virtual response to a real disaster in Nepal


SAPANA SAKYA in OAKLAND


"An 8 magnitude has just hit Kathmandu. There is utter chaos, fires are raging and there is a communications blackout," announced Suresh Ojha into the phone on a real-time simulated conference call on 25 September, exactly a week after an earthquake devastated eastern Nepal.

In Oakland California at the Community Health for Asian Americans (CHAA) there is silence on the line. It is clear that the participants of this mock crisis response exercise are unsure where to start.

"This is exactly the situation, we're hoping to avoid," explains Ojha, "in the case of an actual crisis we have to be up and running." He rattles off a list of things to be done if this was a real emergency, starting with hotlines for information from Nepal.

With Ojha are Nisha Thapa and Bijay Niraula, who lead the Disaster Preparedness Committee of the Computer Association of Nepal-USA (CAN-USA) which for this exercise calls itself the Global Nepal Professional Network (GNPN).

Thapa is a nurse and was motivated by the 18 September earthquake in Nepal to host a 'Hackathon for Nepal', a web portal that will function as a go-to place for anyone needing information on the situation in Nepal.

"I've been working on disaster preparedness in Nepal and when the earthquake hit, I really did not know where to turn," Thapa said. "This is why we need to move fast, no one knows when the next big quake will hit and we can't waste any more time not knowing."

The Hackathon took place all day Sunday and there is a 'Himalayan Disaster Response Portal' up and running. The portal team of ten software engineers led by Niraula tapped into the rich computer talent among the Nepali diaspora across North America.

Software engineers Nabin Acharya and Kumar Pandey worked on the overall design and structure of the portal while Santosh Aryal, Puran Singh and Leon Smith volunteered to bring the site to life.

The team sourced elements from portals like Ushahidi which was used in Haiti with tools like reporting and mapping from the immediate quake zone, customising it for Nepal by integrating features like People Finder and the Donate from Google App engine.

Also involved in the trial run of the information sharing system were The American Society of Nepalese Engineers (ASNEngr) and the American Nepal
Medical Foundation (ANMF).

Pandey explains that the true value of the site will start to become clearer once there are actual members on the ground in Nepal that can populate the portal with crowd-sourced information.

While the Hackathon was going on in cyberspace, Ojha was holding townhall style discussions in a separate room to brainstorm on topics like medical needs, media relations, telecommunications infrastructure post earthquake.

After the initial hesitance in response to Ojha's earthquake scenario, the network was soon humming with issues: who will be the contacts in Nepal, how will they communicate if lines are down, how will the response be relayed?
Smriti Gurung a nurse from Oakland with experience in Haiti suggested: "It would be great to have doctors in Nepal telling folks coming in what type of specialties they needed."

Archana Kayastha from Mountain View suggested: "We must have on hand a list of medical supplies we will readily have access to and a team of medical professionals, physicians, nurses and others who can and will be able to fly out as soon as necessary."

The conversation seemed to gravitate naturally towards Nepal's readiness to deal with the situation as what happens on the ground will most likely affect the kind of information any portal will be able to have. CAN-USA has links to NSET (National Society for Earthquake Technology) in Nepal.

Rob Rowlands, who runs a school and health project in the Kanchenjunga region, and was personally impacted by the recent quake suggested tooling hospitals with a way to communicate their needs through the portal. "We could set up something simple like a webcam with a whiteboard where hospitals can write down what their needs are for the portal viewers to see," he said.

One big problem would be a complete telecommunication breakdown in Nepal. In this case, ham and amateur radio enthusiasts would have to step in. Ojha and Rowlands are trying to set up a ham radio model with NSET in Kathmandu.

An enthusiastic Ojha summed up the day's exercise: "With no funding and in less than a week we delivered a prototype disaster response web portal and successfully mobilised diaspora Nepalis. Global Nepalis have a passionate interest in assisting Nepal to prepare for a future disaster."

Prototype portal:
www.himalayandisasterresponse.org

Read also:
Coping the best we can

A shaken nation
If the slow pace of rescue and relief is any indication, rehabilitation of damaged infrastructure in eastern Nepal will take decades

Vacancy: Earthquake Inspectors, PAAVAN MATHEMA
Why wait for an earthquake to determine how strong our homes or offices are?



1. Arthur
At present (2011-09-30) there is a placeholder page but no portal.

Is that intended to be symbolic?


2. Sapana
The web portal is not completely finished but there will be a placeholder until it's live. If you'd like to participate, partner on the web portal or would like more information, please contact info@himalayandisasterresponse.org




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(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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