Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Code for Relief

What can you do when more than 100,000 people are dead and more than a million displaced with little food, clothing or medical care at hand? Coping with a tragedy of such massive scale is not something that most of us have prepared for. I guess different people have their own way of coping. May be its by going to the affected areas and giving a helping hand. Or perhaps collecting donations and other goods and handing it over to those efforts. I can even imagine some, who might just be glued to their TV sets, switching channels to catch the latest news and programs on Tsunamis'.

So while the rest of the world was coping with this tragedy in their very own way, I got involved with a project that has helped me to somewhat cope with it as well.

It all started just about a week ago, when we met at ICTA to discuss about building an application to find missing persons. At the time Dr. Gihan Dias from the University of Moratuwa had already setup a simple system, called findthem.lk which allowed people to submit info on missing persons. Though it was very basic and simple, nevertheless did manage to collect a considerable amount of data.

My self, Anuradha and Chintana had already begun working on some database schema's as well as templates, so we had an idea of what was needed to be built. Our design was going to be based on Bugzilla, a very popular FOSS bug tracking system. Our challenge was to convince others that by treating the submission of missing and found persons as cases that can have duplicate entries as well as multiple potentially conflicting reports, will actually lead to a better robust system that fosters gathering valuable information, which is otherwise impossible using a well defined data entry process. The meeting lasted a very long four hours, but at the end we had collectively worked out a set of requirements and an action plan.

The next couple of days were mostly spent in office, cut off from rest of the world, just working on building the system. There was probably two occasions where myself and others worked for more than 24 hours straight. But the efforts didn't come alone from a couple of geeks working off their rears. A lot of companies and individuals also got involved with these efforts (list).

Besides the people search, soon other modules started to realize themselves, thus expanding the scope of the project. This is evident and somewhat humorous when you consider the name changes we went through to get to where we are now. First the project was called FindThem, after getting permission from Dr. Gihan. Then it was named to Chalana (sinhalese), to mean movement, or dynamic to reflect the expanding scope. Finally it was decided to call it Sahana (sinhalese), to mean relief.

Sunday night was a long one, spent squashing bugs and setting up a 4 processor Xeon server that IBM had generously donated temporarily until they can donate two brand new high-end servers. Ven. Mettavihari has already started to install Debian Linux on this server, which I continued with Mifan's help.

Monday morning, after working all night, myself and Anuradha along with Farhan (LFS) went to meeting that was primarily for NGOs' to demonstrate the various systems. I must say the response we got was so encouraging -- It kept us going for the rest of the day with no sleepiness whatsoever.

So all in all within a period of five days, we have collectively been able to go from nothing to relief system that's now fully online and being used. Whets more exciting is, as of yesterday, the project is being hosted at sourceforge , as a Free and Opensource software project. At the moment you can download the source code/documentation of the system we are building via cvs and contribute to our efforts. You can also drop into the UCSC and come to the LFS room on the first floor if you want to help. But please check out SourceForge before you do so.

With that final invitation, I end a long but much anticipated blog. There is actually so much more that I could write, since the last couple of days has been a real journey for me. But I shall not bore you with the *details*!

More to come later....

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