While a national disaster-proof communication network did not come out of the 2004 Tsunami in southern Thailand, one relative success story was that of OpenCare, a set of protocols and a data clearing house for disaster information coordination.
Seven years on, its founder, former Internet Thailand CEO and philanthropist Trin Tantsetthi, reflected on how far the project has come and how far it has yet to go to help in times of need.
OpenCare is the adoption of standards based Emergency Data Exchange Language (EDXL) to help break down the silos inherent in government with plug-ins to translate data to and from the format required by all its users. It is not a center and the protocol means that there is no center for maximum redundancy.
A simple example is how the Interior Ministry will see a person, or a victim as name, address and ID number. An emergency responder will list name, blood group, details of trauma and hospital ward. This is how the project started, by correlating the injuries and deaths from the 2004 tsunami to provide clean, reliable information.
Later, it has been expanded to locations, be it for floods or earthquakes, that can be accessed in whatever format the partner organization wants. In other words, an XML schema for emergencies that allows information to be blended together. It is the integration of government from the fringes rather than a dictated, top-down approach that is doomed to failure.
A lot of the emphasis is on getting qualified, clean data into the system with much of the focus being on who and which organization offered the data.
Without such a network, the more agencies involved in disaster relief, the more channels of communication there will need to be and communications quickly gets overwhelmed and errors propagate through the network.
Today many Ministries have signed up to OpenCare as have the armed forces, rescue services though just one of the private telcos has joined. But signing up in principle and using the network are different things and it is frustrating to see mistakes and lack of coordination send much needed relief to the same area twice while others still suffer from lack of services.
However, two important agencies, the ad-hoc Flood Relief Operations Command set up to respond to the current floods and the provincial electricity authority have not. Most of the 600 people who have died in the flooding this year have died due to electrocution. No, Tantsetthi has not approached FROC as he says now is not the time to approach the overwhelmed organization with a new proposal on how to manage its data. Rather, the data that is fed into FROC should in principle be available to OpenCare anyway as it is public data.
Tantsetthi resigned from his post as CEO of Internet Thailand in 2008 and now devotes most his time to OpenCare. The system runs itself with all the development done and dusted and his work is meeting with high level executives of the various agencies convincing them that it would be in their best interests to share information with the network. The problem is that most of the time, government agencies will not volunteer information unless faced with a freedom of information act formal request, and that is not how data should flow in an emergency.
In his own words, “When the goal of making the internet widespread is achieved (only old folks still remember how it was back in 1992), I choose another challenging goal instead of sitting back in an easy armchair waiting for my retirement.”
To him, it is all about openness and trust. There is nothing to fear by giving people accurate information and allowing them to make informed decisions, information that should be out there, not locked in government bureaucratic silos that needs 90 days and a formal request to be unlocked.
The system today runs on the open internet, but is designed for packet data radio or, if need be, messengers with paper running into the office, but that is much more than what a private volunteer organization can afford to do.