License dependencies a hindrance to emergency communication systems

Posted on September 4, 2011  /  1 Comments

In our current emergency communication research aiming to enable interoperability between Freedom Fone and the Sahana Disaster Management System for disseminating Common Alerting Protocol messages and receiving Situational Reports over voice channels, we came a cross the situation where the 2N UMTS modem license had silently expired. During our silent-test this weekend, in preparation for a drill this week, we noticed that the license had abruptly expired. Unaware of the licensing dependency, the Sarvodaya Hazard Information Hub staff were scratching their heads trying to figure out what had happened. Even though the problem was identified, given that it is the weekend, getting any immediate support from the vendor is questionable.

This project: FF4EDXL follows from LIRNEasia’s HazInfo and Biosurveillance research. A critical question that we ask in emergency communication system research is “did the system work on the day of the exercise?”. In the HazInfo project (HazInfo Tech Report, page 18, section 3.1, paragraph 3), we had documented several reasons for the technology to fail on the day of the exercise:

  1. Cellular operators terminating the services for not having received a payment for the monthly bill
  2. Incorrectly aligning the antennas of the satellite system to receive data streams (i.e. it was receiving the audio but signal strength was not enough to receive the data and trigger the alarm)
  3. Accidentally deleting the Java applet on the mobile phone that would receive the alert in Sinhala/Tamil as well as sound an audible alarm
  4. Wrongly configuring the application that restricted receipt of certain levels of hazardous events,
  5. Not staying close to the wireless terminal devices to receive the message on time

The cellular operators terminating services due to unpaid telephone bills is similar to terminating the services of the modem for unpaid license fees. These are all human errors and not technical. One may ask, “why did you not remember to renew the license?”Firstly, the licensing requirement was not appropriately communicated and was agreed that there would not be any such binding; secondly, people in organizations come and go, the technology will stay, hence, relying on people to properly communicate these operating procedures is uncertain during the transition of duties; thirdly, developing nations who are struggling to allocate national budgets to sustain these critical public goods are reluctant to be bound by such costly licensing schemes.

Is there evidence of similar nature that can be leveraged for disaster management policy recommendations? Both Sahana and Freedom Fone are FOSS systems are protected by FOSS licensing schemes. They could use this case and other HazInfo findings as evidence to further strengthen their policy to keep emergency communication systems free and open for developing nations, as those dependencies can cause uncertainties in the business continuity.

It may be a different story for wealthy states, as they can afford to pay private entities and legally bind them to support such critical infrastructure.

1 Comment

  1. I think you’ve done a good job of explaining the benefits of an open license in this context. The main issue is that often when you’re talking about a public good, like an alerting system, the advantages of having an open license become that much greater (although this is more of a moral argument than an economic one). There is also the possibility of getting a free license in perpetuity when there is a public interest rationale, but that does make you subject to the whims of whomever owns the license. An open license creates a form of predictability (and simplicity ) that can be quite useful. The current mobile patent wars show what happens when patents are too vague, complex, inflexible and, consequently, the subject of continuous litigation.