I was invited by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU-D) to present and overview of the Common Alerting Protocol and lessons learned in the Sri Lankan experience in relations to the HazInfo project and the work in progress on the RTBP m-Health project. Further demonstrated the use of the Sahana Messaging Moudule CAP Template engine for generating CAP messages and the SMS/Email Multicasting engine for issuing alerts. Dialog Telekom is the only Sri Lankan organization that has adopted CAP and has embedded CAP in to their Disaster and Emergency Warning Network (DEWN) for communicating disasters. The DEWN solution in being implemented as means for the Disaster Management Center of Sri Lanka to communicate hazard information to their District level disaster centers and local first responders.
CAP surfaced as a standard in 2005 fairly new and unheard of by most in the disaster communication arena in the developing world. Sri Lanka was the first to field test a CAP profile accommodating three different languages. The field testing has also paved the road for several related research problems such as developing a CAP Broker for a single input multiple output software application with semiautomatic natural language translation, transportation with routing, control flow, rules, store-n-forward warehousing, and plug-in technology adapters; all elements that are challenging and require state of the art technology know how to build. It is my quest to secure funding to support the development of a free and open source software CAP Broker embedded in to the Sahana Messaging Module.
My presentation on CAP highlighted the Sahana CAP template developer and SMS/Email multicasting engine, initial elements that are already built in to Sahana for use. CAP was designed for exchanging complete all hazard information in multiple languages target over geographic locations for public warnings or closed user group alerts. The Last-Mile Hazard Information Dissemination research, coined as the HazInfo project in short, field tested 5 end user terminal devices for their capability of receiving complete CAP messaged with a method for scoring the effectiveness of the terminal devices. The technical report explains the methodology and results of the the pilot project. Some of the identified shortcomings were due to capacity constraints of the hand held mobile device displays, confining the language to English only, not carrying all the important elements of a CAP message defined by the Sri Lanka CAP profile, or audio only multicasts had no method of carrying other CAP elements such as the qualifier tags.
ITU Asia-Pacific centers of excellence training/workshop on effective use of telecommunications/ICTs in response to Disasters: saving lives was held at the Universiti of Utara Malaysia (UUM), in the flat lands of Alor Seta, Kedah, the northwestern state of Malaysia, bordering Thailand, home of the historic Gunun Jerai (Gunun Mountain) which Sailors used as a navigation aid, now the pinnacle of all communication antennas ranging from HF radio, TV, FM radio, CDMA, to GSM. Given the routing complexities of air transport, some of the participants from the pacific islands: Nauru, Marshal Islands, Tonga, Kiribati, and Vanuatu and tucked away, land locked, Bhutan had to travel for more than 3 – 4 days to attend the 5 day workshop, 24 – 28, Nov 2008. Other participants were from South and Southeast Asia; the attendees were predominantly members of their state’s telecom regulatory authority.
While the first two days of the workshop were indoor on theory the 3rd and 4th days engaged the participants in hands on training with the use of IPSTAR VSATs, Iridium sat phones, Inmarsat BGAN terminals for data and voice solutions, Motorola HF/VHF/UHF radios . I took the liberty of testing the potential of the 4 varying technologies aKU-band nd their terminal devices for adopting CAP as a standard for sending and receiving emergency information. Both Iridium and Inmarsat marketed their new feature of SMS texting but was strictly restricted to 160 characters and did not give the option of distributing the content over multiple pages as mobile phones would do. IPSTAR was simply a VSAT solution that uses Ku and Ka bands with IP communications and has the same restrictions imposed by the alerting application such as the Internet Public Alerting System (IPAS) Solana Network solution (currently has newer releases) tested in the HazInfo project with personal computers. When IPSTAR was questioned on the reliability of the Ku-band signal in tropical regions with cloud cover such as Sri Lanka (higher frequency Ku bands are known to be unreliable in the tropics), he gave some bogus answer that their hardware was superior to others such as iDirect.
Policy makers, especially the regulators, paving their disaster communication plans in their respective countries must field test the solutions that the vendors provide before hand because most of the time technologies do not promise what the “sales talk” highlights. For example, I tried sending an SMS from my GSM mobile phone to an Iridium phone and the other way around, both attempts failed. The explanation given by the representative was that it was most likely that Iridium did not have a contract with my GSM gateway provider or the one in Malaysia. When we sent a message from the representative’s Blackberry the message was received but on the first 160 characters comprising the header information such as the word “Blackberry” followed by the sender email but not the substance of the message and some other garbage, usually text added on by Blackberry. The voice call using Iridium phone was successful over fixed land lines to Sri Lanka and China but failed me calling mobile phones in both China and Sri Lanka.
Malaysia Amateur Radio Transmitters’ Society (MARTS) members (a.k.a Hams) were in full force with their personal radios clad in blue, almost felt like Special Forces giving guard to the ITU delegates. MARTS Hams were a very friendly and enthusiastic bunch, persuading all to take up the hobby. I am convinced myself now to become a Ham. MARTS demonstrated quite a few home brewed hardware and software that extends the functionality of the radio sets beyond the capacity to communicate voice only. Some of solutions were coupling Laptops for exchanging graphic files (or images), text based chatting, etc.
Informal discussions with the Malaysian Amatuear Radio Transmitters’ Society MARTS members on the benefits Sahana and CAP lead to a partnership project of collaboratively extending the text and voice solutions for communicating emergency information using the CAP standards over the suite of HF radio frequencies. Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) showcased a Malaysia Bole (a.k.a Malaysia Home brewed) chat text messaging solution using Pactor I & II HF radio modems. Thiswas a solution developed with a grant they received from the Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission (i.e. Malaysia Telecom Regulator) for adoptive radio technologies. They are eager to port this particular solution for exchanging text of HF radio in to the Sahana framework. Hence, we shall formulate a collaboration between Lanka Software Foundation of the University fo Colombo School of Computing and UTM. UTM Prof. Ahmad Zuri Sha’ameri was fast in making a ‘s decision and has already agreed to provide the initial funding and resource persons, for phase one, to get started on delivering the first cuts of the software solutions. The long term plans are to conduct case studies in the Pacific Islands, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka, but not restricting to this list, on the use of HF radio for disaster early warning, response, and recovery through data and voice as mediums of communication.
The last day had country representatives present their disaster management plans. My conclusion is that most of them were talking in future tens; meaning they still have to implement their plans or even get started on generating a propoer plan. The ones that did have plans in place had not tested them (simulated drills) to ensure the plans are worthy. The Philippines presentation was the one and only most attractive presentation which touched on the need for planning, simulation, and constant re-planning. Moreover, Philippines stressed on the need for community participation in all aspects, which none of the other countries touched on; i.e. they were all talking of a “top down” approach and bottom up or a hybrid. Many a times the local community members halp them sleves in response efforts unitl the emergency response teams can arrive on site; as in the Sichuan earth quake it took soldiers just about 2 days to reach some of the villages due to rough terrains and mechanical imobility. The Pacific Island countries need to understand that their land mass is too small to house backup or emergency response hardware or resources, in the event of a major catastrophe such as the case in the Sichuan earthquake when all of the government officials were killed or injured and were unable to initiate response plans. They should have a agreements with neighbors or external parties to provide them necessary resources on time. Except for India, Thailand, Philippines and Sri Lanka, the other members were focusing on saving lives after disasters (i.e. response) and had not thought of saving lives through early warnings. There is a proportionality between early warning (mitigation) and response; thus investments in early warnings can drastically reduce the investments or resources needed for response; i.e. few lives to save after disaster and can immediately proceed in to recovery phase.