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ICT in a Disaster (or is it ICT *is* a Disaster?)

Steve Davis, CDEM and Red Cross Responder. 04 March 2011, 3:39 pm
ICT in a Disaster (or is it ICT *is* a Disaster?)

Christchurch-based NZCS Deputy President Steve Davis has been very actively involved "on the ground" in the recovery efforts in Christchurch, operating ICT support for the Red Cross and USAR during the rescue efforts following the quake. The following are his initial views of the rescue effort from an ICT and Telecommunications perspective.

As of writing this piece in the aftermath of the horrible earthquake that devastated Christchurch, I know there are some CEOs, CIOs, CFOs and others responsible for ICT systems out there that would pick the latter alternative in the headline.

They did not have good plans in place or did not heed the warning from September quake - assuming of course that they had recovered from September.

As an ICT professional and as an emergency responder for a number of different organisations on a number of different levels, the last few days while experiencing this quake, dealing with it and responding to it have been rather sobering and given rise to many thoughts.

ICT Disaster Recovery

From an ICT perspective, parts of Emergency Management, Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity is a Risk Analysis exercise and like insurance, something that you pay for just in case the unimaginable happens.

I have to admit that my own DR plans are lacking. But then my income isn't totally dependent on my ICT systems and so far I have been lucky and had no loss. You could maybe say that as I have survived so far, the likelihood of something else happening now is even smaller.

How many others had a similar view after September? How many would have done the analysis and found that the probability of three major earthquakes in less than six months hitting central Christchurch was pretty much zero?

How many had the warning in September and did nothing about it?

DR is like insurance and you get what you pay for. I feel so sorry for those that did not have insurance at home or for business before September 4th as it may not be possible or in any way affordable to get it now.

However to not have DR plans is inexcusable for businesses of any reasonable size and some will be suffering from a lack of investment in it.

There are many things to consider if you want to survive a disaster. For instance, Cloud Computing may seem very attractive for DR reasons.

What happens if you lose connectivity for extended periods and you cannot connect to that cloud?

Also, what happens if your cloud provider does not replicate your data to a very remote site and their site is hit by a major disaster? It is not as easy as it seems, with lots to think about when looking at these options.


I have been pleasantly surprised that the Telecommunications infrastructure has held up pretty well.

Many predicted telecommunications would be impacted far worse in a disaster than happened. That is not to say that there have not been problems: overloading is always going to happen in any major event, and the growing reliance on electricity for the telephone networks has become quite an issue.

There has been a call for donations of old analogue phones for homes that have no power, and only have cordless devices that need power.

However, businesses with modern digital PABXs can't use analogue phones and in a year or two when new digital-only networks come about it simply will not be an option for anyone.

Similarly as we move to a more distributed network for connectivity (mainly Internet now, but IP based telephony in the future) we become dependent on street side cabinets that need power and are also vulnerable to disasters, especially flooding.

Again, thought needs to be given to our telecommunications options if we are to be able to continue to function soon after a disaster.

The telcos have done remarkable work in Christchurch keeping things going. Generators have been attached to cabinets and cell sites, and Telecom and Vodafone have shipped in cell sites on wheels (COWs) to fix coverage holes for mobile service and to provide additional capacity to key points for the Civil Defence.

Social Media 

As said before, I was very lucky. Power, Internet and other services kept going right through in my area and I was still online and tweeting as the quake happened.

First thing I did when the quake struck was to send a tweet:  "That was a massive F'n shock, hope everyone is Ok"

Since then, I have used Social Media to send messages out to say that my family and I are ok, and to help spread important messages from authorities and other agencies involved in the response.

Similarly local and national government have jumped into Social Media for similar reasons.  We have seen Christchurch City Council start out on Twitter in the midst of this crisis (@ChristchurchCC) and also central Government with @CEQgovtnz.

Good on them, although it would have probably been better if they had started using Social Media more before the event. Civil Defence/Emergency Management had dipped its toes in for a while now but this is full immersion sink or swim stuff and I think that they have done pretty well.

Others have also been using the power of Social Media to mobilise volunteers, the Volunteer Student Army, and even SCOUTS NZ have been using Social Media to get people out to help those less fortunate.

There has also been a Social Media campaign to get Lotto to donate to the relief effort, unfortunately this didn't help for legal reasons, but an alternative option was quickly devised by Lotteries to respond to the Social Media response.

Organisations like NZ Red Cross have been active on Social Media for a while now and have also been using it to great effect; unfortunately their web hosting provider was not up to the load that was generated, so they have had to make some adjustments there, but again showing the huge response that can be gained through Social Media.

Another form of Social Media is that used by @CrisisCommons and @CrisisCamp and the work that @timClicks has been doing to being together people (mostly outside the area) to use technology to benefit those in need responders and others through providing open information.

ICT on the ground 

The use of ICT in the initial stages of the response in the area I am working in (volunteer Response/Rescue teams) was minimal, keeping to the KISS principles.

While the telecommunications infrastructure has been pretty good, it has not been completely reliable because of overload and damage, so we rely more on Radio communications. For this we have a number of radios repeater systems in place, some fixed and in place for CDEM at all times, and others portable and installed as and where needed at the time.

At our base we have of course been using basic ICT, Internet connectivity by 3G, basic office productivity etc., and as the operation has grown we have been expanding that use. Also in the background in use by other parts of the response are GIS and database systems.

So ICT in a disaster is alive and well, but for some the disaster may continue for a long time, since most businesses do not recover from a disaster if they do not have a good DR plan in place.

The CDEM Plans and Response are now well tested. Lessons have and will be learned, and technology will continue to play a part.

Steve Davis is deputy president of NZCS.


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John Saywell 04 March 2011, 5:03 pm

I would be interested to get your thoughts Steve, and other readers, on whether there is an easy way for an electronic database of business addresses to be used in emergencies?

It has been frustrating for affected property owners and tenants in Chch after each earthquake because there is no way to access information from the various emergency authorities about the status of a particular address.

Surely a customer database from Orion or the telcos could be linked to googlemaps or similar and updated in real time by police, fire, SAR, civil defence, council etc.

I know this needs a bit of pre-planning and set-up, but in a state of emergency the red tape should be able to be removed.

Steve Davis 04 March 2011, 9:42 pm

Hi John, wouldn't it be great to get this level of integration and coordination between agencies even in peace time, let alone in time of a disaster.

It should be possible, and as you say now is the time to try and achieve it.

Over many years many of us have been trying to get Government Data such as mapping, address data etc openly available so that others can use it to achieve this sort of result.

There has been some successes, but some are slow to release such data for all sorts of reasons, and I am sure that many will throw the Privacy issue up as well.

During the event Gavin Treadgold did manage to get some data to be made available from CCC so again some steps have been made.

However even if it was not public, a common system that all agencies could use would make a big difference to reduce duplication of effort etc during the event.

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