On Sri Lanka’s failure to deploy home-grown disaster-response software

Posted on May 29, 2016  /  1 Comments

SAM_0832Sahana was developed by volunteer software engineers under the aegis of the Lanka Software Foundation in the months and years after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. It was handed over to an international foundation when I served as Chair of LSF. Nuwan Waidyanatha who cut his teeth on disaster research as part of the Hazinfo project, is now a leading trainer and part of the team guiding development of Sahana. Despite my best efforts to get those involved in the early development of the software interviewed for this story (triggered by one of my tweets), we are the only sources for information on Sahana in this Sunday Times story.

There are allegations that the authorities could have utilised locally-available systems that could have helped to better coordinate disaster relief efforts. One such innovation is Sahana software. In the immediate aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, a group of software engineers from Sri Lanka came together to work out ways to be better prepared for future disasters. Their efforts, with funding from the Lanka Software Foundation (LSF), led to the setting up of Sahana software, designed to aid rescue and relief efforts during disasters.

In the years since its inception, Sahana software has been used in countries such as the Philippines, Pakistan, Japan, Haiti and the United States for relief efforts during natural disasters.

According to Founding Chair of LIRNEasia and former chairman of LSF, Professor Rohan Samarajiva, the software had been offered to the international community while he was chairman of the board, and this had resulted in the establishment of the Sahana Foundation. He pointed out that, at the time, the software was even being used by authorities in New York for disaster relief purposes, “but we couldn’t get it accepted and implemented here,” he said.

. . . .
Sri Lanka’s disaster management was a very short-term exercise, Sahana Software Foundation Director Nuwan Wadyanatha observed. “There’s the initial crisis window (one week); after two weeks it’s all forgotten, victims are taken care of by NGOs and the community; no pressure for the government.

“Moreover, such large-scale crises are infrequent. If one were, however, to add up the economic losses of small-scale events, over a long period they [accumulate] to about the same as the one-off large ones,” he said in an email.

If policy-makers were to realise that large-scale crisis management is simply a scale-up of small-scale emergency management, and if systems are implemented for managing day-to-day emergencies, then those same systems that are integrated into daily practices could be used to manage the one-off crises, Mr. Wadyanatha pointed out, noting that Sahana software could have helped to manage the current crisis.

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