E-government for emergencies: dealing with a bird flu pandemic using the wireless web and podcasting

by Tom Worthington FACS HLM

Director of the Communications Technologies Board of the Australian Computer Society

For the CeBIT Australia, Theatre in Hall 3, 2:10pm, 9 May 2006, Sydney

An extended technical presentation was held at the Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra, 11 May 2006.

Updated for course "Tools for New Media and the Web", ANU, 26 March 2007


  1. Introduction
  2. Sahana 1
  3. Implementation
  4. Modifying Sahana
  5. Sahana 2
  6. Dealing with a Pandemic

    See Also

  7. Other Information Technology
  8. Home


The government's greatest responsibility is for the protection of its citizens. The Internet and the web are now part of planning for natural disaster response. How can wireless web technology and podcasting be used for dealing with a possible avian influenza (bird flu) pandemic? Implications for government and business will be outlined.

Example of wireless web devices are the BlackBerry (from RIM), Palm Treo, Microsoft Pocket PC and other Smartphones.


Blackberry Smartphone

A smartphone is any electronic handheld device that integrates the functionality of a mobile phone, personal digital assistant (PDA) or other information appliance. This is often achieved by adding telephone functions to an existing PDA or putting "smart" capabilities, such as PDA functions, into a mobile phone. A key feature of a smartphone is that additional applications can be installed on the device. The applications can be developed by the manufacturer of the handheld device, by the operator or by any other third-party software developer.

From: Smartphone, WikiPedia, 2006.

While such devices can run custom applications, the emphasis here is on using a standard web based application, where no custom software is needed on the device.

Community Emergency Support

Aerial Ladder Platform (extended)

Aerial Ladder Platform 37m (Mercedes/Bronto)

Salvation Army's Mercedes Emergency Food Van Salvation Army BBQ

Salvation Army's Mercedes Benz 313 Sprinter Emergency Van and BBQ

Just as important as the specialized fire trucks in a major emergency are the volunteers providing food and other support. A camper-van capervan with some BBQs is a lot less high-tech than a 37m aerial ladder platform, but just as vital. Similarly, adaptions of simple web technology on ordinary hardware can be as important in an emergency as specialized hardware and software.

The ICT Professional

...a member must:

(a) be honest, forthright and impartial, and
(b) loyally serve the community, and
(c) strive to increase the competence and prestige of the profession, and
(d) use special knowledge and skill for the advancement of human welfare.

From "Code of Ethics", ACS

The Australian Computer Society (ACS) is an association for Information & Communications Technology (ICT) professionals, with a commitment to the wider community to ensure the beneficial use of ICT. Use of the web and mobile devices falls within the responsibility of the Communications Technologies Board of the ACS. The ACS is also represented on the International Federation for Information Processing Technical Committee 6 "Communications Systems". ICT Professionals are obliged to consider how the systems they build will function during an emergency, particularly where these are needed for everyday use. The ACS also encourages professionals to look at coordinating their work for community benefit.

The World of Emergencies

ISSUED AT 1736Z 03 MAY 2006 ...

------------------- ----- ------ ----- ------ -----
PAGO PAGO 14.3S 170.7W 1636Z 0.15M 24MIN
NIUE 19.1S 169.9W 1603Z 0.21M 10MIN


The general public little realizes that a web of electronic monitoring systems operate 24 hours per day to monitor dangers, such as tsunami, and issue warnings. These systems only come to public attention when needed. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issues bulletins via email and other electronic means (I get them on my mobile phone). While an Influenza Pandemic is not as sudden as a tsunami, it can be as deadly, and similar systems are needed.

An earthquake near Tonga on 4 May and resulting panic in New Zealand shows the need for clear emergency information. While the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued timely alerts and cancellations, and New Zeland emergency authorities corrected considered there was no risk to the public, they did not take into account how this technical information may be interpreted by the media and the public.

Too Much Communication

Gavin Treadgold has prepared a detailed analysis of the event. Part of the problem seems to be that the international tsunami warning system is too efficient. Local authorities had difficulty reacting to the information in a timely manner. In the past itwas expected the general public would obtain emergency information from the authorities, via the media. However, national and local authorities now have to take into account the public and media have access to information sources and be able to provide an up to date commentary on those sources.

Timeline created from the articles (day/article time)

0326 Earthquake near Tonga (4/1052)
0342 Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issues alert (4/0840)
0346 Red Cross staff notified in New Zealand through Red Cross international network (4/1812, conflicts with 0358)
0350 National Controller contacts PTWC, informed tsunami unlikely (5/ZZZ5)
0358 Red Cross staff alerted from Italy (4/ZZZ1, conflicts with 0346)
0400 Gisborne Mayor alerted by CNN (4/1555)
0400 National Controller activates the National Crisis Management Centre (NCMC) (5/ZZZ5)
0403 Tsunami arrived at Niue (4/0840)
0430 Hawkes Bay CDEM Group alerted (4/1052)
0430 NZ BBC correspondent notified from London (6/ZZZ1) ...

From: "Tongan earthquake/tsunami timeline and news articles", Gavin Treadgold, About Response.Net.NZ, Fri, 2006-05-05 23:06

Honshu Earthquake

Added 26 March 2007: A recent earthquake in Japan shows what is now possible. In addition to the text based messages, the West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center provided computer generated maps showing the predicted path and arrival time of a possible Tsunami:

WCATWC tsunami travel time map

WCATWC tsunami travel time map

... an earthquake with preliminary magnitude 7.1 occurred near the west coast of Honshu, Japan. ...

See the WCATWC web site for basic tsunami information, safety rules, and a tsunami travel time map ...

From: Tsunami Information Statement #1, WCATWC, 03/24/2007, 6:03PM PD

Animation could be added to make such maps easier to understand quickly. But the designer needs to keep in mind the intended user and the capabilities of their equipment.

Using the Web in a Global Avian Influenza Pandemic

WHO is coordinating the global response to human cases of H5N1 avian influenza and monitoring the corresponding threat of an influenza pandemic. Information on this page tracks the evolving situation and provides access to both technical guidelines and information useful for the general public.

Latest information ...

Avian influenza, WHO, 2006

The World Health Organization is coordinating the global response to human cases of the H5N1 avian influenza and monitoring the corresponding threat of a global influenza pandemic. Australia is prepared with a Australian Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza coordinated by the federal government. However, a global pandemic will stretch the resources of all nations. There will be a need for authoritative, rapid information dissemination and the provision of temporary medical facilities. This can be aided with the use of wireless Internet and web technology. Information for the general public, medical and emergency workers can be distributed via the web. Web based applications can be used to coordinate the response. Some such information sources and applications already exist. However, the information is fragmentary and not in a format suitable for efficient dissemination.

Australian Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza

The web can be a key tool for dealing a response to a potential global avian influenza pandemic. The Australian government has a Australian Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza. There are corresponding state plans:

  1. NSW Health Interim Influenza Pandemic Action Plan
  2. Victorian Influenza Pandemic Plan
  3. Queensland Government and pandemic planning
  4. SA Pandemic Influenza Operational Plan
  5. WA Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza - November 2005
  6. Tasmanian Major Epidemics Management Plan
  7. ACT Influenza Pandemic Action Committee (ACTIPAC)

However, a global pandemic would stretch the resources of all nations. There will be a need for authoritative, rapid information dissemination and the provision of temporary medical facilities. These conditions are similar to those occurring in a natural disaster, such as those Sahana were created to deal with.

The use of web based software provides the opportunity to combine a system for dealing with a disaster with an information system about developments and training for disaster response. The use of standard computer hardware and software allows a "bootstrap" approach: equipment from a local school or office can be pressed into service for emergency coordination. The Internet can be used to download the needed software and then the training and information can be obtained over the web.

This presentation details changes which were made to the Sahana free open source emergency web based application first used for the Asian Tsunami. The system was modified to make it general purpose, more efficient and able to operate on hand held wireless PDAs and mobile phones and has been deployed for the Pakistan Asian Quake 2005 and Philippines for Mudslide Disaster 2006. The changes which might be made for a bird flu outbreak will be outlined, and how this could be integrated into the Australian, and global systems being developed to deal with a pandemic. How new technologies such as Podcasting will be mentioned.

Sahana is an example of a web based application used for emergence.

Sahana 1

Sahana is a web based disaster management system developed in Sri Laka for the December 2004 Tsunami. The system was further developed and Version 2 of Sahana was released as free Open Source software for dealing with future disasters. This version incorporated some changes to allow the system to operate on tablet computers, PDAs, mobile telephones and other low bandwidth small screen devices. The Sahana developers have discussed extending the system to help developing nations deal with a bird flu outbreak.

A demonstration version of Sahana is available online.

Sahana is an application developed in response to the December 2004 Tsunami:

Crisis, for example natural disasters, management software; including refugee camp management, supply/demand match making, lost persons, etc.

Sahana disaster management system, SourceForge, 2005, URL: http://sourceforge.net/projects/sahana/

Sahana was developed in response to an urgent need by the Sri Lakan ICT industry. It was implemented as a web hosted database application and designed to operate using the Internet for communication to a web browser running on a desktop computer. However, by its nature, such an emergency application may be in high demand when there is limited bandwidth available and only low capacity display devices available. As it was a web based application, there was the potential to modify Sahana 's user interface to minimize bandwidth and allow it to use small screen handheld devices.

Handheld devices have limited screen, data input, processing and communications. It would have been possible to redesign the Sahara user interface to work with a specific handheld device, but there was a better option: design it to work with a large range of such devices. With careful design, a web interface can be made to work on a range of small devices and still function with a normal desktop web browser. The design detailed below was offered to the Sahana project for version 2.

A more detailed explanation for this approach to emergency communication, using the example of the Canberra bushfire disaster is discussed in "Dealing with Disaster: Using new Networking Technology for Emergency Coordination", Tom Worthington, 29 October 2003, URL: http://www.tomw.net.au/2003/enet.html

Sahana 1 Implementation

Sahana 1 used common applications, such as MySQL, Java and PHP to produce a Web-based user interface to a database application. CSS style sheets and HTML are used to lay out the web pages. While the application worked well on ordinary PC hardware, making it effective in an emergency, it had limitations. The application had graphics which slowed down the communications and a layout which could not adapt well to hand held devices.

Sahana home page

Sahana home page

Modifying Sahana

Sahana 1 was converted to used a more advanced CSS and XHTML web design, and improved for small screens and slow network connections. Implementing the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines can also help ensure an efficient design and can be checked with specalised accessibility tools. Changes achieved a 67% reduction in data requirements for a desktop PC and 88% reduction for a handheld device (with fewer images).

Newer versions of web technology have features built in for automatically adapting web pages to suit. As an example menus on a hand held device can be numbered 1 to 9, so the user just had to press a button on the keypad, eliminating scrolling. At the other extreme, the text size can be increased, allowing the same interface to be used for a group briefing with a video projector. A clean web design also allows the text content to be automatically converted to other languages.

Illustration 1: Sahana on a SVGA Screen

Illustration 2: Sahana on a VGA screen

Illustration 3: Sahana on a QVGA Screen with no CSS

Translation of Interface

Illustration 6: Sahana 2 Machine Translated into French

Illustration 7: Sahana on a Mobile Device in Simplified Chinese

Modifying Sahana for a Pandemic

Sahana developers have discussed extending the system to help developing nations deal with a pandemic.

A few relevant points to raise about pandemics are: -

1.1 Little to no physical damage on environment/infrastructure - most communications infrastructure should be working (although bandwidth will be reduced from people working from home etc).

1.2 Measures used to manage pandemics are well suited to use of ICT - quarantine, isolation, social distancing. It will be difficult for people to co-ordinate in person - and ICT is being looked to as a key technology to assist because many people will be forced to stay a home.

1.3 Potential to impact the entire planet in a short period of time, and little opportunity for support from NGO's etc because of international, and potentially even country-internal travel restrictions. The scale of a global pandemic is far and away larger than nearly all types of disasters.

From "Requirements for customizing Sahana for Pandemics", FOSSWiki, 20 Feb 2006

In many ways a pandemic is easier to deal with for an IT based system, as unlike a tsunami or hurricane, the telecommunications infrastructure will not be damaged. However, more communication and information will be required and the disaster will cover essentially the entire globe.

Essentially what is required is a "Just in Time" training system, to provide the community, volunteers and professional emergency workers with information on what they need to do. This could be done by web based training packages and podcast video and audio,delivered on-line as required.

The needed information to deal with a potential pandemic is already provided on-line by WHO, Australian Federal and state governments. However, the information is not currently in a suitable format for use. The point of view needs to be reversed from a "top down" approach which suits health and emergency officials, to a "bottom up" one to suit on site workers. Many of the planning documents are large PDF files which are difficult to download and read on-line. The material needs to be divided up into components which are easy to view and understand. This material can also be formatted for machine translation to allow for non-English readers. At the same time the information can be designed for efficient display on hand held low bandwidth devices. In this way the information can also be made available for developing nations with limited IT facilities.

Exercise Eleusis

The Australian Government conducted Exercise Eleusis '05, from 29 November to 1 December 2005. This was a national simulation of an outbreak of avian influenza. It concentrated on managing an animal disease outbreak, not human, but is useful as a guide to how IT will be used is such situations.

... objectives of the Exercise were to test:

From: Exercise Eleusis Report, DAFF, 2006

One outcome was the realisation that public communication will be significant in establishing public confidence during an emergency.

Exercise Eleusis National Coordination Centre (NCC)

Exercise Eleusis National Coordination Centre (NCC) DAFF Photo

The exercise used a National Coordination Centre (NCC), equipped with personal computers and a video projection screen, printers and telephones. The exercise had its own "Newsroom" web page, with contacts for the exercise, media releases and a media package in Microsoft Word and PDF format. The media package provided the exercise scenario, background on avian influenza and government plans. No video or audio was offered and no RSS feed for email list.

A 23 page Evaluation Report (April 2006) is available with a summary of the exercise, outcomes, recommendations from the report. One problem noted was the flow of information to industry was not as efficient because they were not directly connected to the National Coordination Centre. The recommendation was to include industry in the centre, give industry access to the shared web site and include industry in development of an agreed communication strategy.

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