The power of innovation in dire straits

ABC News just posted a story (Volunteers Restore Net Access for Katrina Victims) that highlights two important points for me. Three if you count that my brother, Steve, brought many of these pieces together in a late night effort on the Thursday following Katrina’s damage (

1. The power of the community to respond to disasters. Obviously, there are the front line responses–the bucket-brigades, etc…–that have largelly been replaced by emergency services (which have since been undermined by bad federal and local funding decisions). But there are also the crucial secondary responses–like getting displaced people their needed medicines, shelter, communication, clothing, and pension checks or other income. While there’s a lot of potential for tapping the community in reacting to front line responses (just look at the ham radios have always played, and now blogs are joining), there are some great examples of how the “open source” community is using its knowledge and experience of what’ss possible to bring help to people who need it. One of the ways that help came was in the form of an easy and cheap process for quickly providing web access to large numnbers of people:

In McKinney, Texas, about 10 volunteers were able to set up 25 public access terminals in a Wal-Mart store now serving as a hurricane relief center for victims from New Orleans. The Web center was established using PCs donated by, based in nearby Dallas, and a high-speed wireless Internet connection provided by the new Wal-Mart store located across the street.

We began receiving refugees this [Monday] morning around 10 a.m. By 10:30, we already had several people using the workstations to find relatives and loved ones,” wrote volunteer John Leidel, in an e-mail to ABC News. “They’re also being used to check the current news. Many of the people haven’t heard radio or seen television broadcasts for quite some time. They are seeing the pictures from the devastation for the first time since they were evacuated.”

Leidel, a software engineer, says that he and his fellow volunteers worked tirelessly throughout the weekend to set up the ad-hoc network. But he says the effort was well worth it.

“The medical station that has been set up inside was especially grateful. They have two of our stations in their area for checking in patients,” wrote Leidel. “All in all, this has become a wonderful success. As one of the incoming refugees put it, ‘This is the nicest place we’ve been [to] so far.'”

2. The power of recombinant innovation. The solution that worked in the Walmart in McKinney is a solution that could work anywhere there are outdated PCs sitting around (where in corporate America is that not the case?). These old PCs can be turned into simple Linux terminals, networked back to a single Pentium PC connected to the web. Each within about 5 minutes and all running off a single “server,” dramatically lowering the maintenance burden. It’s a combination of PCs and the old client-server model of computing, a combination of used hardware and open source OS and web browser, and a combination of new computers and web access with outdated machines taking up space in some backoffice in IT. It’s the equivalent of a geek bucket-brigade, strung out across the country, and creating the means for others to provide almost immediate access the web for both victims and responders

Steven Hargadon, a software developer in Sacramento, Calif., says he and fellow open-source programmers came up with the idea of open-source terminals based on their years of experience in networking computers running Linux, an open-source operating system that proponents say is just as capable as Microsoft’s Windows program.

“The technology is pretty simple and it’s been available for some time,” says Hargadon. “A working Web station would take no more than five minutes to set up, and requires no ongoing maintenance except in the case of hardware failure.”

So after Hargadon saw Katrina’s destruction, he collaborated with other Linux colleagues online to develop a special version of the software that can be easily copied onto blank CD-ROMs. Also included in the package was a customized version of the free Firefox Web browser which contained links to disaster relief information, news Web sites, and free e-mail services offered by Yahoo and Google.

The software is freely distributed on Web sites geared toward Linux developers and will work on computers as outdated as PCs with Pentium 2 microprocessors and no hard drives.

As is the case with so many disasters, our responses as a community show what potential we have for supporting each other in times of crisis. And they make us wonder why that never happens when the crisis is slow, lengthy, and under the radar–like public school education. The same solution that is providing web access to stranded victims of Katrina could just as quickly and easily bring internet access (and email, word processing, etc..) to a school near you.

Imagine what else could be done… Then, like Steve, go do it.

1 thought on “The power of innovation in dire straits

  1. Only as a clarification, and not necessary to the thrust of your thinking–the individual kiosks did not depend on a server even. All they needed was an internet router to give them an ip address and a connection to the net. What’s interesting about this is that the technology to do this (called by many a Firefox LiveCD) has been around for a year or two, but there hasn’t really been a compelling application for it. Now, I’m not sure that this was a compelling application, but it sure was a good use of old computers and an otherwise lackluster Open Source project.
    ABH– Thanks, Steve, that’s even better (in enabling rapid responses).

Comments are closed.