by February 10, 2005 0 comments



It has always been said that IT is a great enabler in many spheres. Little might these sayings of yesterday have realized the extent of the role it would play in the face of a most horrifying calamity! The recent Asian tsunami was caused by an earthquake dubbed as the worst in the past 100 years. IT played a small but vital role in helping to locate survivors and bring rescue and relief to them. This story looks at a few such inspiring tales from the affected regions. We acknowledge all the original sources (quoted below) for these stories.

Ham radio, not dead yet
Source: Voice Of America News
Ham radio (official name, amateur radio) is a community of operators who use radio receiver and transmitter sets to communicate with each other. Ham operators are licensed to do things far beyond the capabilities of regular CB (commercial band) operators and with this come both conditions and responsibilities. Their radios are strictly to be used as a hobby and cannot be used to make money. They can only broadcast to other Hams and not to general public. You can get more information on them at http://
www.irony.com/ham-howto.html.
India too recognizes Ham radios, but to travel out of your home with your set, you need to
convince a lot of bureaucrats and obtain licenses and permits. For more on this refer to
http://www.hamradioindia.com/abthr/about.htm.   

This is a tale of Bharati Prasad, a housewife from Delhi. An amateur radio enthusiast, she had earlier been involved in a record- breaking attempt for the maximum messages broadcast in 1982. She was back in the Andaman Islands this time to try and set up a new record, when her hotel was hit by the tsunami. Within an hour, she set up her set on her hotel lawns with the help of a generator and the connivance of the hotel manager. When the true extent of damage became apparent and she realized that communication links were down all across the islands, she understood that the rest of the world must have received word of the disaster and must be looking for them. So, she went to Port Blair and set up operations there with the assistance of the police. With six colleagues, she broadcasted requests for help and news of the well being of families living in the islands. She also sent out messages of hope from several hundred visiting tourists. Even today, the All India Radio station there is broadcasting messages, taking cue from her, to relatives and friends all over. 

Nature plays havoc, and technology aids survival

Sandeep Shah and a few friends pooled in some of their money and came to the southern coast of India to help relief efforts. Even cellphone communications were jammed in the affected areas on the mainland, because of heavy traffic. The last time Ham operators swung into action in India was back during the Latur earthquake, in 2000. 

The Internet
Source: Business Standard
The earthquake was many times more powerful than your typical atom bomb and yet the Internet survived and resumed operations even in affected areas, barely minutes after the earthquake. During a quake itself electronic signals get jammed because of the general shakeup in the Earth’s geo-magnetic field. Internet connectivity through cellphones was a major lifesaver in many of the countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, where it is cheap and widely prevalent. Apparently, affected people grouped quickly to warn others about the impending disaster approaching them, but it was the lethargy of the officials to first believe that it could happen on their watch and then to take action on it that proved fatal for thousands.

Digital convergence makes mobile networks offer Internet connectivity seamlessly. Within hours of the disaster, many websites were put up offering real-time data, tracking of damage, messages from people in the disaster area and those from outside looking for people in the areas hit. There were thousands of photographs, graphs, infographics videos and explanatory pages posted on so many websites and Web logs that made tracking and understanding the phenomenon easy. In Mumbai, three friends got together to create a blog website called Tsunami Help and created a network of over 200 people over just a couple of days. These three people had never met each other and yet the Internet brought them together for a cause. Within days, their blogger networks had allocated them sufficient bandwidth and their sites processed several million hits a day. These blogs and websites also served to appraise and warn relief workers in advance so they could garner not only monetary support, but also equipment and supplies well in advance of their visits to the 0-zone.

Cellphones
Source: Assorted agencies
In our day-to-day lives, barriers of culture, geographical locations and nationalities make a huge difference in what we are willing to tell someone else. But that was apparently not on the mind of a man from Singapore who called his Internet friend over his cellphone. The call was received in a remote coastal village in Tamil Nadu and the entire village was evacuated just in time.

The media has also reported various incidents about people being rescued, after being marooned for hours in the receding waters, using their cellphone signals. Cellphones are dependent on the longevity of their towers and equipment to operate. Most cellphone towers are high enough to remain unaffected and perhaps this was the reason these services were only ‘momentarily’ down in most parts of the affected belt.

Future positives 
The idea is to learn from such events and create a better system of tackling such disasters. Apathy and ignorance are the major forces in
increasing death toll from such events. It is alleged that for villages along India’s affected coastline, even the published recommendations for coastal settlements were not followed. Some villages had disaster drills and programs laid out, which helped save many lives. A village in Indonesia was saved because of old wives’ tales where people remembered a similar earthquake from a hundred years ago and ran to the nearby hills.

A British schoolgirl saved hundreds of lives when she recognized the receding tide as a warning sign of the tsunami from her school lessons and alerted people on the beach. Early warning systems for tsunamis are as vital to safety programs as similar things for cyclones, volcanoes and earthquakes. 

An interesting idea proposed on an Internet forum, is to have an emergency activation system on every cellphone. The network provider could activate the system in case of calamities or a forecast, and an outgoing signal would serve as a beacon to locate survivors. We leave you with three links that describe the horror and show you ways in which
you can still help: http://jlgolson.blogspot.com/2004/12/tsunami-video.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_Indian_Ocean 
_earthquake and http://www.google.com/tsunami_relief.html.    

Sujay V. Sarma

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