High tech helps during disaster

Feb 20, 2003, vol. 26, no. 4
By Marianne Meadahl

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Global disaster communication has vastly improved since the introduction of the United Nations first internet email gateway 10 years ago.

No one knows that better than its creator, SFU communication professor Peter Anderson (left), who developed the service in the early 90s for the UN's international decade for disaster reduction, which wound down last month.

Anderson continues to play a major role in laying new directions for disaster management by pushing the envelope of advanced high-tech possibilities. His track record speaks for itself.

“For the past 10 years, SFU has played a major role in assisting with communications for every major natural disaster that the UN has been called on to assist,” says Anderson. The system he helped put in place distributed thousands of disaster situation reports and appeals for global assistance on all natural disasters, including cyclones, floods or earthquakes.

These days with automated mailing lists, the process has become simple.

“In the beginning, what we were doing was considered very revolutionary. It was the first instance of the UN using the internet for humanitarian relief activities.”

In the 1980s Anderson created the emergency preparedness information exchange (EPIX) a PC based bulletin board system, and used it as a model to develop a national disaster information network for Australia. In 1992, he returned to SFU and began looking at using the internet as an alternative to dialing up.

“I knew that if people could find a way onto the internet, we could help provide a starting point for connecting those who had knowledge about hazards and their properties with those who had to deal with the human and environmental consequences of their occurrences,” he says. “It just grew and this early internet work became a major focus worldwide. It's been an amazing journey. No one could have predicted back then how things would progress.

“We developed and hosted servers for numerous organizations including the UN and federal and provincial governments, but as organizations obtained their own resources they began to develop their own servers,” says Anderson, noting the university's role in posting key federal government information on such disasters as the Manitoba floods in 1997, and provincially, the Salmon Arm fires the following year. SFU also provided a backup server for California during the Los Angeles earthquake in 1994.”

We want to see others become self-sufficient and ensure they have ownership of their systems. However, we continue to provide support.” EPIX continues to be a key public internet server for many agencies, including B.C.'s provincial emergency program and many key volunteer organizations.

“Over the past decade our work has allowed us to look at a fundamental social application of the internet as it has evolved,” Anderson adds. “We're going from a point where 10 years ago few used the internet, to a situation now where the world is becoming so increasingly interdependent because of it.”

That evolution and advancement in the field has led SFU into groundbreaking involvements in such areas as advanced space exploration, and the opening of a satellite gateway facility on campus.

“There have been a lot of challenges along the way, not only with the growth of new technology but in trying to understand its impacts and placement in the social environment,” Anderson adds. “That requires an understanding of society's caring networks, and how we can have a positive impact.”

Anderson and his colleague Steve Braham are currently exploring ways to ensure access to internet-based services during emergencies from wherever the situation is unfolding.

“We're moving more into virtual emergency management and information systems, ways of enabling people to remain in communication with others regardless of their physical location and where there may be no reliable infrastructure in place,” Anderson explains. For example, he sees applications for wilderness search and rescue missions. “If search teams are linked by satellite communication there are ways of broadening and coordinating searches well beyond what is now currently possible.” Another project, real-time emergency management via satellite (REMSAT), with Telesat Canada and B.C.'s forestry and ambulance services is helping to bring real-time network services to remote incident sites throughout the province.

Anderson says the next big focus will be tests of a new satellite frequency band that he predicts will revolutionize high-speed mobile and portable networking. Canada is one of the first countries to test the technology. “We proved, in the early stages, that here was a role that a university should play,” says Anderson. “It's becoming more competitive, but 10 years later, we're still leading the way.”

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