Off to Sri Lanka for Sahana 2009 Conference

Tomorrow night, I am leaving for a week in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to attend the first annual Sahana Software for Disaster Management ConferenceSahana is a Free and Open Source Disaster Management system. It is a web based collaboration tool that addresses the common coordination problems during a disaster from finding missing people, managing aid, managing volunteers, tracking camps effectively between Government groups, the civil society (NGOs) and the victims themselves.

I thought I would take this opportunity to tell you a little bit about Sahana as I believe that effective management of information is an important part of Living Prepared™.  And Sahana, while intended for use more by organizations than individuals, is a powerful tool for effectively managing information about disasters.

Sahana has been used successfully in response to the tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2005, in response to the Kashmir earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, for the Southern Leyte Mudslide Disaster in the Philippines in 2006, for the Yogjarkata Earthquake in Indonesia in 2006, for the Peru Ica Earthquake in 2007; for the Sichuan Earthquake in China in 2007, and implemented by the City of New York for managing their Coastal Storm Plan in 2007.  More information about Sahana can be found here.

I helped design the very first version of Sahana that was coded by the open source community in Sri Lanka in the weeks following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and am personally very proud of how far Sahana has come in the past five years.  I will be speaking about the history of humanitarian software and the challenges and benefits associated with it at the conference.  I will post a link to my presentation and paper when available.

Sahana has drawn interest from or been implemented by many professional emergency management response agencies around the world including FEMA, the City of New York, and the governments of Australia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia and China.  Several major international organizations and UN agencies  are looking at how Sahana can help coordinate information needs for relief agencies, and small charitable organizations around the world are already benefitting from using it.

Sahana can be implemented effectively at the local level for collecting lists of missing persons, to register recipients of aid at a shelter, to organize volunteers, to manage an inventory of disaster supplies, and to help track and match needs requests with available offers of assistance.  Anyone working with a community service organization could probably find utility in Sahana.

As an open source software project, it is most happy running on Linux, but also runs on Windows, Mac OSX, Solaris and as a portable applet (Windows XP) and as a Live-CD (Linux-based).  If you enjoy hacking around with applications and are interested in disaster and emergency management, you might enjoy getting involved with Sahana as a user.   You are welcome to join our mailing lists.  You can download the software from the Sourceforge CVS repository and find lots of instructions for installing and configuring Sahana on your computers, whatever they may be.

If you are a student in open source programming, you may be very interested to know that Sahana has been again selected to participate in the Google Summer of Code (GSoC) for 2009.  Sahana was selected as 1 of 150 out of about 400 groups who applied this year. This is a strong testament to the reputation that Sahana has built up of the last few years and the great success that we have had as part of this program previously.

If you are a student who is interested in participating in the GSoC this year, we would encourage you to review our ideas page and our student guidelines on the Sahana Wiki.

Once you have reviewed that information, we invite you to discuss any ideas that you may have on the Sahana maindev mailing list or via IRC (#sahana on Freenode or via  My handle on IRC is mprutsalis.


It’s Flood Awareness Week: Are you Living Prepared™?

warning-sign-yellowMarch 15-21, 2009 is National Flood Safety Awareness weekFEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program’s website has some great resources to help you estimate your potential flood risks as well as information about how you can get flood insurance.  By entering my address into their “One-Step Flood Risk Profile”, I was able to get an instant assessment of my home’s flood risk (“Low to moderate – Hoorah!).  You will also get a list of insurance agents in your vicinity which offer flood insurance through this program (and you can call them directly through Skype if you have the internet explorer or firefox plug-in installed – very convenient!)

Visit the FEMA Map Service Center and check out the official flood maps for your home – called FIRMS for Flood Insurance Rate Maps – (mine is not at risk for flooding – but I knew that – living at the top of Park Slope by the park as I do).  You can view the maps online without having to buy them.  Don’t miss NOAA’s floodsafety site – they have a ton of useful resources and information about flooding for National Flood Safety Awareness week as well, including a link to the National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrological Prediction Service, which includes lots of real-time data on maps, and links to their RSS feeds.

Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service

Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service: River Observations 3/16/09

So, take the time this week to be Living Prepared™ for National Flood Awareness Week by:

  • Educating yourself
  • Assessing your risks
  • Taking steps to protect yourself & your property, including getting flood insurance if you need it

The website section on flood preparedness – Before a Flood has some decent recommendation on steps you can take to prepare for a flood:

1. Safeguard your possessions.
Create a personal “flood file” containing information about all your possessions and keep it in a secure place, such as a safe deposit box or waterproof container. This file should have:

  • A copy of your insurance policies with your agent’s contact information.
  • A room-by-room inventory of your possessions, including receipts, photos, and videos.
  • Copies of all other critical documents, including finance records or receipts of major purchases.

2. Prepare your house.

  • Make sure your sump pump is working.
  • Clear debris from gutters and downspouts.
  • Anchor any fuel tanks.
  • Raise your electrical components (switches, sockets, circuit breakers, and wiring) at least 12 inches above your home’s projected flood elevation.
  • Place the furnace, water heater, washer, and dryer on cement blocks at least 12 inches above the projected flood elevation.
  • Move furniture, valuables, and important documents to a safe place.

3. Develop a family emergency plan.

  • Create a safety kit with drinking water, canned food, first aid, blankets, a radio, and a flashlight.
  • Post emergency telephone numbers by the phone and teach your children how to dial 911.
  • Plan and practice a flood evacuation route with your family. Know safe routes from home, work, and school that are on higher ground.
  • Ask an out-of-state relative or friend to be your emergency family contact.
  • Have a plan to protect your pets.

This is also a good time to order a vehicle escape tool – if you haven’t already done so.  I recently replaced my ResQMe with a new one for two reasons: First, I had been carrying this ResQMe around for a couple of years now and the belt cutter looked a little rusty.  I was concerned that it would not be as sharp as I would want it to be.  Second, and more importantly, it had fallen off of my keychain and was lost.  This was a bit disconcerting as I had read some reviewers of the ResQMe that were concerned that the tool could become dislodged from one’s keychain during an accident resulting in a car going into the water.  But I think it takes a really good tub to pull loose and I snagged mine on something.



I also ordered and have now received the Victorinox Rescue Tool – and boy, am I impressed.  This is a professional tool for a rescue worker as much as for an individual.  As I suspected, it is a bit large to carry around on a daily basis, especially with the bright red belt pouch with neon yellow trim.  It is also not quite as purposeful to use on a daily basis as the blades are long, sharp and locking.  I wouldn’t want to use this to trim threads from my daughter’s sweater.   One nice feature is that the flat-head screwdriver blade also locks, making it possible to put a lot of torque onto it and making me wish that the phillips head screwdriver locked as well.  It’s going in my emergency kit though, where I know where to get at it when disaster strikes.

So, be Living Prepared™ for National Flood Awareness Week!

Twitter Feeds for Emergency Alerts & Preparedness Information

A friend has been bugging me to micro-blog on Twitter for some time now.  I resisted for a while as I find it difficult to keep up with updating my status and activities already on Facebook and LinkedIn.  I finally signed up to better be able to understand Twitter’s use in support of the Sahana Disaster Management Software project, which I am involved with as a member of its Project Management Committee and long-standing contributor.  Yesterday, I was playing around with a couple of plug-ins – twitterfeed pushes my blog posts automatically to my twitter feed (very cool); a Facebook plug-in pulls my twitter status to update my Facebook status (also very cool); and a third and final one – Pidgin-Twitter plug-in – makes my twitter feed readable on my Pidgin instant messaging client (unbelievably cool).  [Follow the instructions here on how to set this up].

Somewhere along the way, I noticed someone else was following ReliefWeb, which is an information service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA).  So I started following the ReliefWeb twitter feed.  After a little research, I realized that a number of official sources of emergency and disaster information push information to their Twitter feeds.  I became obsessed.

I searched for “FEMA” and found a few official feeds.  I searched for “emergency” and found a bunch more.  “Redcross” led to a number of hits – one from the National Red Cross and a ton of local chapters.  Then the floodgates really started to open.  See, a lot of these twitter feeds from government and non-governmental organizations follow other “official” sources of emergency alerts and information.  I am up to a list of over 40 that I am now following – including one from BreakingNewsNY that pushes out up to 500 alerts per day about incidents in New York City – that is monitored by FDNY and other public safety agencies in the City.

Being better informed is absolutely a better way of Living Prepared™.

Integrated into my instant messaging client (Pidgin), I now have a scrolling feed of emergency and disaster preparedness public information notices, as well as emergency alerts and notifications.  It flashes when a new one comes in, and there is an audio alert as well (that can be turned off).  It’s the perfect solution for me as I’ve always struggled to have to check information websites (a pull system); and the e-mail notifications that I get (a push system) clog my e-mail folders (where they are filed automatically by rules).

A desktop applet has always been the solution, but most – whether a google desktop widget or simply adding a web-page to my desktop – I have always found lacking as either they remain in the background and I am unable to quickly view them on top of other applications – or they consume desktop space by occupying a bar perpetually on the right or left or top or bottom of my screen.  All dissatisfying solutions that I’ve done away with after a short while.  An instant messaging client solution is perfect for me.  It provides visual and auditory notification of new alerts and messages, which is useful when I am following a situation closely, but I can also turn down when I need to.

For outgoing updates, I have the following paths to update my twitter feed.  I can post to this blog, and it will update twitter.  I can also update my twitter status through a browser; through sending an instant message from Pidgin (it using gtalk – googletalk protocol/XMPP); through sending an e-mail to a twittermail address; through sending an SMS message from my smartphone; or through the browser on my Smartphone (whose homepage I set to my twitter homepage so I can pick up all my alerts).  I think that is pretty cool.

And by posting to Twitter, I am also updating my Facebook page; and you will also note that you can also view the Living Prepared and Globaliist twitter feeds through the widget on the right of this page.  In coming weeks, this site will be launching a number of feeds to help you be better informed about emergency and disaster preparedness – aggregated from official government and non-governmental sources.

This is the short version of this story; a longer one with step-by-step instructions will follow soon in a longer post, but I wanted to get this out to get you thinking about the possibilities.

Here is something you can help me with – I am looking to compile a list of relevant twitter, blogs and RSS feeds from governmental and non-governmental sources related to disaster preparedness, as well as alerts and warnings issued at actual time of an event (such as tornado warning, earthquake notifications, and hurricane tracking).  I’m going to organize these into separate RSS and twitter feeds that you will be able to subscribe to and follow.

In a few days, I will post a list of the feeds I have identified so far, and would be glad to receive lists of any others from you.

And I’ll do some quality control and weeding out before making any aggregated feed public.  There’s nothing worse than having an unqualified source mixed in and creating confusion.  All postings from Living Prepared™ will be clearly identified with the source – and you will always be able to look them up from this site.

Daylight Savings Time Begins Sunday March 8

I just started following the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) on Twitter, and they reminded me today that we change our clocks on Sunday.  This is also the time to check & change your smoke/CO2 detector batteries and to check your emergency stocks.  In future postings, I’ll review recommended emergency stocks to store in your household, along with a rotation schedule for semi-perishables and a checklist for items to check and update in your household emergency kit and go-bags.

But anyway, I’m pasting in APHA’s posting here:


Get Ready: Set Your Clocks, Check Your Stocks

Daylight saving time BEGINS Sunday, March 8, 2009. Is your emergency preparedness stockpile up to date?

When it’s time to change your clocks because of daylight saving time, remember to check your preparedness kit to make sure your emergency stockpile isn’t missing any items and that the food hasn’t expired. APHA’s Get Ready: Set Your Clocks, Check Your Stocks campaign is reminding people to refresh their emergency supplies before a disaster occurs.

If you haven’t created a stockpile yet, now is the time to create one! (And as always, don’t forget to check the batteries in your smoke alarms.)

This information is good year-round: You don’t have to wait for the clock change to update your stockpile. So think about having these materials at your next health fair or community meeting!

Ten Things You Should Never Leave Home Without: #10: A Whistle

fox40What is it: A whistle is used for basically three professional purposes: for officiating sports contests, for law enforcement/public safety/traffic safety purposes by federal, state and local authorities, and for issuing and responding to distress signals.  It is for this final purpose that I recommend that everyone carry a whistle with them at all times.

The whistle of choice here is the Fox40 classic whistle.  Fox40 whistles were used by Search & Rescue teams working at the Oklahoma City, World Trade Center, Asian tsunami, and Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma rescue operations.  They are also the whistle used by professional officiating crews of the NBA, NFL, World Cup of Soccer and the Olympics.

The Fox40 whistle is pealess – which makes it more sanitary and less likely to clog – you can wash it, rinse it out, and it will still work well.  It is loud, over 100 db, so you should never use it at full power near someone else’s ear (or even your own).  It is a bit more expensive than alternatives but at around safely under $10, it can save your life and is worth every penny.

fox40_microYou might also consider the Fox40 micro-whistle, which is a bit slimmer so may fit better in your pocket or under your clothing.  Any of the Fox40 whistles will do – they make a bunch of different models, and come in a variety of colors – so choose one that fits your needs and your lifestyle.

Utility on a Daily Basis: Honestly, not much, unless you are a professional, amateur or volunteer referee/umpire at sporting events.

There are some formal programs to distribute whistles on university campuses as a means of deterring crime by alerting campus police and other students of someone in trouble or otherwise threatened.  A police or public safety officer is going to respond to the sound of a distress signal being blown.  But calling attention to yourself in the presence of a criminal is not always the wisest course of action.  Say, for example, someone pulls a gun or knife on you and demands your wallet while on a deserted street.  Give this person your wallet!  Don’t start blowing a whistle – at least until after he or she has fled a safe distance from you.

Whistles are good accessories for hikers and water sports enthusiasts but it is ultimately a piece of survival gear that is only needed in a disaster – whether large and public or small and personal.  Like a vehicle escape tool, you are going to want a whistle with you when you need it and you never, ever, know when that is going to be.  So for me, like the vehicle escape tool, a whistle makes this list even though it does not have utility on a daily basis.

My Fox40 Classic Whistle (in cool camo-color), Photon Freedom LED flashlight, and SanDisk Cruzer on neck lanyard

My Fox40 Classic Whistle (in cool camo-color), Photon Freedom LED flashlight, and SanDisk Cruzer on neck lanyard

Personal Report – Is Mark Living Prepared™? Yes.  I wear a whistle on a lanyard chain with breakaway clasp around my neck and usually under my clothes, along with a Photon LED flashlight and a SanDisk Cruzer 16 GB USB drive.  A whistle can also attach easily to your keychain or fit into a pocket, for those times when having something around your neck just doesn’t work.  My chain leaves a noticeable bulge underneath dress shirts and I might not want to wear it all the time in warmer weather, but for most casual and work clothes, it works out just fine there.

Many people wear lanyards around their neck on a daily basis with work ID cards, public transportation passes and keycards – more than wear neckties it seems.  Adding a whistle and LED flashlight to this kit is simple and makes you better prepared.  It’s also a great icebreaker/conversation starter.  Yes, you can help spread the gospel of Living Prepared when someone asks you why you are carrying a whistle around with you.  Amen!

Criticality after a disaster: A whistle is used to signal others that you are in distress and need assistance.  It is also used to answer signals from those in distress.  Shouting, yelling, and other forms of vocal alerting do not have the range and require much more fatiguing effort than the simpler task of blowing on a whistle.

Some reasons why you might find yourself in need of a whistle after a disaster – either a big one affecting thousands of people, or a small personal one just affecting yourself:  you are trapped in a building collapse caused by an earthquake, explosion, hurricane, tornado or any other event causing structural failure; you are trapped in a vehicle that has run off the road into a ditch and you are injured or otherwise unable to make it back to the roadway without assistance; you are trapped in an elevator after a power failure; you have been beaten and mugged and left for dead in a dark alley needing medical assistance; you fall down a flight of stairs, breaking your legs; you are lost in the woods, in the mountains, in the dessert; you may be witness to a criminal act and wish to signal public safety officials; you may even be separated from your family and want to signal them where you are in a crowded and chaotic environment.  There are lots of things that can happen to you in a disaster that can injure you, immobilize you, incapacitate you, but if you are conscious and breathing and within reach of a whistle, you will have the ability to call for help well beyond the range of your own voice.  A whistle has literally hundreds of potential uses.  I’m sure you can think of more than I have listed here.  I want you to have one with you.

A visual signaling device has the capabilities of alerting people from much farther away.  So if you are in the open and mobile, your flashlight may better serve you.  The new Photon Freedom flashlights have an automatic S-O-S blinking pattern that you can set that will run for hours and hours on its batteries.  Pretty cool.  I will review them in another post.

Advice on how to use a whistle to issue and respond to a distress call.

In the U.S. and Canada, the distress signal is typically three blasts of the whistle made in rapid succession, repeated after a one minute interval.  The standard signal for replying to the distress signal is a single blast, repeated after a minute’s silence.  And two blasts can be used by either caller or responder to mean “Come to me”.  This is how I was taught but I cannot find much reference for this online beyond the S.A.F.E. Whistles website.

However, in much of the rest of the world, the international distress signal is considered to be six blasts made in quick succession, with the reply being three blasts.

Either three or six will be recognized as a distress signal by trained rescue workers and public safety officials.  You do not need to try to whistle S-O-S or any longer signal than three blasts – once per minute.  It may take a while for rescue workers to respond.

Keep blowing your whistle until rescue arrives at your side. Do not stop issuing your three blasts once you hear a response.  Keep it up, which allows rescue workers to more quickly find you.  Only stop once you have made visual contact with them, and you can see that they have seen you or else they will have to keep looking for you.  The rescue workers will continue to issue their response as well, until visual confirmation is made.


The Living PreparedScorecard:  Whistle

  • Easily Carried: YES
  • Not too heavy: YES
  • Practical Purpose on a Daily basis: Not Really
  • Critical Purpose when Disaster Strikes: YES


So, carry a whistle with you.  If you do, you will be Living Prepared.

Ten Things You Should Never Leave Home Without: #9: What’s In Your Wallet

What is it: A wallet is usually made out of leather, and is designed to fit into pocket or purse.  It serves to carry your money, credit cards, identification and other important documents.  I’m calling this entry “What’s in your wallet” rather than just “wallet” as what’s important here is not the wallet itself, but what is in it.  In order to be Living Prepared™, you need to have three things in your wallet, which you carry with you at all times.

These three things are:

  • Photo ID: Driver’s license or other official government-issued ID card showing your face, name and address.
  • Proof of Insurance: Originals or photocopies of health & auto insurance cards
  • Means of payment: Credit Cards, $100 Cash & ATM/Bank Cards

That’s it.  Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?  The hardest thing for me is to maintain a minimum balance of cash in your wallet.

Utility on a Daily Basis: A wallet is like your keys – it’s pretty essential all the time.  If you find yourself leaving home without it – you usually turn right around to go get it.  It’s just impossible to get through a day without identification, money or credit cards these days.

Personal Report – Is Mark Living Prepared? Usually.  But not as much as I should be.  Putting my wallet in my pocket is a part of getting dressed.  But keeping cash in the wallet is harder.  At the moment, I have no cash in my wallet.  None.  I gave it all up to our babysitter, who we pay on Friday’s and I didn’t get the opportunity to get to the ATM beforehand.  It’s now Monday night, and I have been able to survive through the weekend on credit cards and my wife’s cash on hand.  I’ll stop by the bank tomorrow, I hope.

Keeping a minimum balance of cash in one’s wallet is hard hard hard.  Even if your hide a few 20s somewhere in the wallet – you always know it’s there – so it’s always easy to use rather than stopping at the ATM when your time is tight.  This is something that takes time and patience and dedication to accomplish.  I am still working on it.  And this is something to revisit in a few months.

So, just for kicks – here’s what I found in my wallet today:

  • New York State Driver’s License
  • Credit Cards
  • NYC MTA Metrocard with $$ on it
  • Costco Membership Card
  • 3 Doctor’s appointment cards for appointments since past
  • AAA New York Membership Card
  • Hertz #1 Club Membership Card
  • Bank ATM Cards
  • 2 Starbucks Cards both with $$ on them
  • Expired auto insurance identification card
  • Current auto insurance identification card
  • Health Insurance Card
  • 2 Staples Reward Card (same account)
  • Voter Registration Card
  • 4 local merchant purchase club cards (e.g. grocery stores)
  • 4 wallet sized photos of my kids
  • No cash

Not bad.  Only had to weed out the doctor’s appointment cards, expired auto insurance card and extra Staples Reward card; the rest stayed.  Usually, it is also stuffed with receipts but I recently went through and shredded most of those.  Now I need to get to the bank for some cash.

Criticality after a disaster: If your wallet carrying all of your essential papers and documentation and means of payment, you are Living Prepared for the next disaster.

Identification is essential to have with you at all times and that means a government-issued photo ID – such as a driver’s license.  This serves as proof of identify and your residence address, which you might need in order to gain access to your property after a disaster.  If you drive, you have a driver’s license and it serves this purpose.  If you don’t drive, get a state issued picture ID card that will serve the same purpose.

I don’t recommend carrying your passport with you wherever you go out as you should only need this in a real worst case scenario, and it’s just not healthy mentally to live that way.  The exception to this would be if you live close to the Canadian or Mexican (or other international) border where evacuation across the border might be more foreseeable.

Proof of insurance for yourself (health) and your vehicle (auto) is something you do not want to be caught without.  Keep any medical (health/dental/vision) insurance cards in your wallet (with two-sided color photocopies in your go-bag and household emergency kit).  Also carry copies of any insurance information for your children if the information differs from your own.

I also recommend not leaving your auto insurance cards in your vehicle only – make a copy if necessary and keep one in the glove box of your vehicle and put one in your wallet.  Your auto insurance insures not only your car but you, and if you find yourself driving someone else’s car, you will want to have your proof of insurance with you in case you are in an accident.

Means of Payment: Credit cards can be used to purchase most anything these days.  Even for small purchases at fast food restaurants and grocery stores.  I recommend, if you can both a Mastercard or Visa and an American Express card – all three if possible.  All have no annual fee versions for those who qualify.  You will find that there are places that don’t take American Express (not just the Olympics) and others that only take American Express.   I think there are even a few that only take the DiscoverCard – but not as many.  But you will find that network outages do occur – especially following disasters, and it may not be possible for a merchant to accept a certain card.  So you are best off with three or four different ones – and all issued by different banks.  (It doesn’t do you any good to have a Chase Mastercard and a Chase Visa if Chase’s network is down – neither will be useable). So diversify.

Of course, you will likely find that after a disaster that cash is most useful.  It requires no electricity or telecommunications or computer networks to use.  That is why I strongly recommend an ample supply of cash being available to you at all times.  I store cash in waterproof pouches in a couple of different locations (go-bag, household emergency supplies, in fireproof safe) where I can get to it in an emergency.  But you never want to be caught out of your house and out of cash.  This is why I recommend keeping a minimum balance of $100 in your wallet.  This is a good amount – enough to get you out of a jam, buy supplies, take a taxi a long-way across or out of town, maybe get you on a bus or feed you and your family for a few days.

Finally, ATM/Bank Cards will help you get more cash when they are working and you can get to them, but you should not count on ATMs working in the immediate aftermath of a disaster due to likely failures in power and telecommunications.

You might also consider carrying a blank check in your wallet, which is another means by which a merchant can extend you credit if they trust that you can cover it; but after a disaster, I wouldn’t expect to find a personal check to be universally accepted.

So unless you want to start sewing gold coins into the linings of your clothes, which I don’t recommend, a combination of different credit cards issued by different banks, a minimum balance of cash, and ATM/Bank cards will give you pretty redundant and diversified means of payment in your wallet.  And that’s what you are looking for.


The Living Prepared Scorecard:  What’s in your Wallet

  • Easily Carried: YES
  • Not too heavy: YES
  • Practical Purpose on a Daily basis: YES
  • Critical Purpose when Disaster Strikes: YES


So, carry a wallet with you with ID, proof of insurance, and diverse means of payment.  If you do, you will be Living Prepared.