Significant progress made on making communities resilient to disasters

Posted on April 1, 2007  /  6 Comments

By Rohan Samarajiva

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.

Implementing CAP in Sri Lanka

Evaluation of Last-Mile Hazard Warning Information and Communication Technology Hardware and Software System

Content Standard for Last-Mile Alert and Notification


  1. Just fot the record, a clip from buletine recieved from —

    A tsunami has been observed at the following sites:

    Location Lat. Lon. Time Amplitude
    ———————— —– —— ——- ———–
    Honiara Solomon Island 9.4S 159.9E 2148UTC 0.15M/0.5ft
    The tsunami has not been observed on tide gages to the north
    of the Solomon Islands. Forecast models indicate the tsunami
    energy will be mainly contained to the south of the Solomon

    Time – Time of measurement.
    Amp. – Tsunami amplitudes are measured relative to normal sea level. These are not crest-to-trough heights.

    Based on the earthquake location, magnitude and historic tsunami records, a damaging tsunami IS NOT expected along the California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska coasts. Some of these areas may experience non-damaging sea level changes.

    At 1:40 PM Pacific Daylight Time on April 1, an earthquake with preliminary magnitude 8.1 occurred near the Solomon Islands.

  2. Prof Samarajiva – Thanks for the report and update. Also we, much apprecaite all the positive/negative feedback you & lirneasia team extended from the day 1. Further it was a great feeling to hear the actual users feedback who even showed that the phone app is active with them and said that they got alerts in no time and manage to ack also during the pilots. I am sure with our extension work on Cell Broadcast we can put this system to work for real and save people’s life.

    Looking forward to our continous association. We will extend our maximum support as in the past for this imporatant project.


  3. Harsha,

    I am not a techie. But a guy told me that Morse system (said to be very old) can be used for disaster signals. Please see whther it is worthwhile investing on old solutions. Download the monthly newsletter from site

  4. The HazInfo project; namely the Last-Mile Hazard Warning System (:M-HWS) main focus is on providing the “rural communities” with an ICT based system to receive hazard alerts and notifications (i.e. a all-hazards and all-media based system that is not constrained by sophisticated communication methods such as a Morse code based system). The lessons learned point-out that ICTs such mobile phones, satellite radios, cdma phones that are used in every day life were more effective than sophisticated VSAT based systems, which requires a higher level of technical competency. Moreover, the current conflict situation in an environment such as Sri Lanka prohibits the import of the very very expensive Ham Radios that cannot be afforded by rural folks in Sri Lanka.

    “The TACAPASS system is an automated SW stack, written in both Java and \bin\bash shell scripts which currently run on a RedHat 9.0 Linux IRLP (Inernet Radio linking Protocol – ) node. Its purpose is to automatically broadcast Tsunami and Weather alerts from NOAA as they occur for a given region within the United States.

    This application is directed at Amateur Radio Operators in the United States of America who are operating a current IRLP node. TACAPASS leverages the CAP (Common Alerting Protocol) XML based format which can be found at It acquires these “cap” files from the NOAA website, parses the CAP XML file and presents it to a few automated scripts that run on the base IRLP node platform. When relevant information is retrieved, the system pushes the modified description to a text2speech solution called flite provided by Carnegie Mellon University where it can be used to broadcast the announcement.” For more info please see article —

    Dr. Gordon Gow (Associate Professor, University of Alberta) who has taken the lead in operationlizing CAP in Sri Lanka as part of the HazInfo project had invited the Radio Society of Sri Lanka (RSSL) to join the project to experiment the possibilities of testing CAP over Ham Radios. As it is the case in Sri Lanka unless people are held by their hand and dragged to do things they never engage. So the HazInfo project chooses to work with dynamic and practical ICT partners who have the drive to make a change and not with people who simply get on stage and make loud noises but do not move a finger to make a change.

  5. Dr Lawrence Wasserman

    I am working in mobile Technology Applications and promoting cell phone access to content modules …. for example a module can bedesigned as …. How community prepare itself for disater emergency. Mobile learning by use of flash cards with mobile access that in each community members have plastic playing card size that contain content suvch as does and donts and where to go in emergency etc. These Interactive Mobile Flash Cards have mobile access to emergency content 24/7 and applied for community education and training. For those interested in learning more of this technology please contact me.