The findings of a pilot project on learning how information-communication technologies and community-based training can help in responding to disasters such as tsunamis were discussed by community leaders and international experts at a workshop on “SHARING KNOWLEDGE ON DISASTER WARNING, WITH A FOCUS ON COMMUNITY-BASED LAST–MILE WARNING SYSTEMS” held on March 28th and 29th, 2007 at the Sarvodaya headquarters in Moratuwa.
These finding ranged from the difficulties experienced in communicating disaster warnings to villages when mobile GSM and fixed CDMA telecom networks were not functional due to conflict conditions to the importance of not leaving newspapers on top of sensitive electronic equipment which can overheat and shut down as a result. In terms of the five communication technologies that were evaluated across multiple criteria, the addressable satellite radio sets and the java-enabled mobile phones performed the best, with the GSM-based community warning device developed locally by Dialog Telekom, MicroImage and University of Moratuwa following closely. The VSAT based warning system did not perform too well in the tests.
The objective was not to declare a winner among the technologies, but to find out how they could be improved to perform reliably in the difficult conditions of Sri Lankan villages. In disaster warning, great emphasis is placed on redundancy and multiple pathways, so more than one of the technologies will be used when the project moves to the implementation stage. In any case, the findings of the field trials are now in the hands of the developers who are already making improvements to the equipment so that they will perform better not only in Sri Lanka, but in the other countries that are interested in these applications.
Among the significant institutional shortcomings that were identified were the inability of the project to retain all the trainers who were trained last March and the delays in establishing a 24/7 helpdesk function at the Sarvodaya Community Disaster Management Center. As the purpose of a pilot project is to find out what works, what does not work and how things can be made to work better, even the “negative” findings are considered extremely valuable.
The fact that simulations were conducted in all the project districts, except one, was in itself a great success in light of the conflict conditions in the East. A great surprise was how an advanced Sarvodaya village, Mirissa, which was designated as a control village (and therefore not given any equipment) managed to respond extremely quickly to the simulated warning by coordinating with an adjacent village. This was an example of organization and determination trumping technology.
The workshop was attended by experts from South Asia and North America, Last Mile pilot project participants from various villages, Sarvodaya district offices and LIRNEasia; representatives from the telecommunications, satellite and software industries, media professionals, and many people representing groups interested in early warning systems.
Conceptualized in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed the lives of one out of 500 citizens of Sri Lanka, the Project was generated through the partnership of LIRNEasia and Sarvodaya with their shared objective of evaluating the suitability of information communication technology (ICT) in the last mile of a national disaster warning system for Sri Lanka and with its possible extension to other developing countries. It is funded by the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC) and launched in January 2006.
The pilot project included outfitting and field-testing an initial 32 villages with various kinds of communications equipment which could provide features such as: early warning wake-up, addressability and provision of information in three languages (English, Sinhalese and Tamil). The field-testing actively engaged the 32 villages in assessing and reporting on the effectiveness of the system and equipment being employed. A number of the key hardware and software components were designed and developed in Sri Lanka or specifically for the project.
While effective, economical and appropriate methods of communication and their corresponding ICTs were investigated and employed, the emphasis of the Project was on community involvement with an accent on contingency planning including evacuation preparedness. Part of this process has included training young people from Sarvodaya Shantisena as trainers.
Sarvodaya and LIRNEasia intend to work with their multiple partners to further analyze the finding of the pilot project research and implement them in a broad program to make 1,000 Grama Swarajya villages of the Sarvodaya Movement exemplars of disaster resilience. It is of course hoped that these lessons will be of benefit beyond Sarvodaya villages and indeed beyond the shores of Sri Lanka.