Disaster Tech Lab reconnects tornado-stricken community in Moore, Oklahoma

26 May 2013

An Irish-based charity called Disaster Tech Lab is helping to bring wireless connectivity to residents of tornado-stricken Moore, Oklahoma. The group has five engineers on the ground applying techniques and technologies developed in responding to the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Sandy in New York.

The Moore tornado struck the neighbourhood on 20 May, with peak winds estimated at 210mph (340 km/h). Some 24 people, including 10 children, were killed and up to 400 others were injured.

The charity Disaster Tech Lab, previously known as Haiti Connect, was deployed in New York where it established a command centre in the Rockaways. The organisation took on a global focus after more than two and a half years of work in Haiti, where it deployed more than 30 successful projects to provide emergency communications systems. Their efforts were recognised in February, when its founders were invited to attend a policy meeting at the White House with the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) about its Think Tank and what it did to facilitate communications in the post-Sandy environment.

“At this moment we have a team of five engineers active on the ground with another 22 volunteers on stand-by locally,” Disaster Tech Lab co-founder Evert Bopp explained. “We’ve recently taken a different approach on finding qualified volunteers and have focused on recruiting these to assist in responding to disasters in their locality. This approach creates greater engagement on the side of the volunteer, increases the local awareness and also greatly lowers the time claims we put on volunteers.

“Because they will be local volunteers can commit for a day at a time or even several evening or weekends. There is not need for us to expect volunteers to travel halfway around the world. This is the first deployment in which we’re bringing this approach into practice and the large number of highly qualified volunteers is proof of this. To ensure that our volunteers are qualified to use the Aruba Networks equipment that is the core of our networks we are working together with Aruba Networks who have made their partners and clients aware of our work and that we are recruiting volunteers.”

I asked Bopp what technologies are being deployed to help restore communications to the community. “Wi-Fi and VSAT are still the mainstay of our network. Our network uses Aruba Networks hardware and we use Aruba’s Airwave software to remotely manage the networks as it provides insight and management down to the single client device.

“For backhaul purposes we still use a lot of VSAT terminals however as we are (again) operating in a first world environment with a higher level of infra-structure than say Haiti we’ve expanded the backhaul technologies to use 3G, 4G and LTE where available. In addition to this we use a lot of digital mapping to plan and track our work. We use crowdmap to track requests as well as installed locations. In addition since our deployment in Sandy one of the maps we produced as early as possible is a signal assessment map. This visualises all wireless networks, both Wi-Fi and cellular, in the area. We did this during our deployment after Hurricane Sandy and it has proven a valuable tool not only for ourselves but also for organisations such as FEMA who we still work with closely.”

Data analysis and reporting

Bopp says Disaster Tech Lab’s relief efforts in New York have taught the group a number of key lessons that will come in handy when and if the group’s efforts are required in the future.

“Our relief efforts in New York have thought us a number of things, most of the related to working in a first world country and how that’s different than a less developed one. The biggest lesson was that being more pro-active is definitely the right approach.

“During our work after Sandy we did not sit around and wait for people to come to us with requests. Instead we went out into the affected areas to meet people and organisations so we could introduce ourselves, asses their needs and offer assistance where needed.

“Too many organisations in this line of work operate in tight little clusters leading to a lot of silo-forming. Our aim is to help everyone so it’s essential that we gather as much situational awareness as possible. In practice this means a lot of walking as driving means that you might miss a lot.

“Another lesson is to be as open as possible and share any and all information we have. While this has bitten us in the backside at one point in the past I still strongly believe that sharing details of our work, both in real life as well as online, is of great benefit. By showing people what we do, how we do it and how it benefits people we all become wiser and maybe the response to the next disaster will be even more effective.

“The biggest lesson is that disaster response organisations should not lose focus of why they are there, it’s to help the people affected. Disaster response is unfortunately a booming industry and with that the subject of a lot of analysis and reporting.

“This has led to a an increasing number of groups who show up in a disaster hit area, gather huge amounts of data and then go back to the safety of their offices thousands of miles away to analyse this data and type up a report rather than use it to provide real tangible assistance to those affected. Nobody has ever been rescued by a spreadsheet or a presentation.”

·       Bopp says he is urgently trying to raise funds and cover overheads such as travel, food and accommodation for the volunteers over the next few days. You can read about the charity group’s work online.

Moore, Oklahoma image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years