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Sahana Booklet



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Sahana Booklet

  1. 1. Sunflower image by Esdras Calderan: Words and design by Anu Samarajiva The Lanka Software Foundation (LSF) is a Free and Open Source R&D non-profit with a volunteer board from the local software industy and university community. It has managed and helped to fund Sahana from its inception. LSF is also involved with other open source projects in Sri Lanka and encourages FOSS developers with internships and fellowships.
  2. 2. December 26, 2004. In Indonesia, the rumble of an earthquake triggered a wave of water that pushed out the ocean’s currents for miles. In India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Thailand and surrounding countries, water crashed into land, smashing trees, buildings, and people. The Indian Ocean tsunami was a devastating example of how forces and materials could come together in moments with explosive and tragic results. However, the tsunami also generated a different kind of coming together - one of people and ideas. In the wake of the disaster, IT professionals and students in Sri Lanka and from around the world joined together to develop a community-based, open source disaster management software program. That program, Sahana, has since spanned the globe, benefited many new communities, accumulated several awards, and is now being spun off as its own entity, ready to stand in the world on its own as a powerful and creative force.
  3. 3. In telling the story of Sahana, it is important to note that as an open source product, it owes its strength and its very being to its community and their collective motivation and skills. As it is, this small booklet cannot begin to do justice to all the Sahana members’ contributions and experiences. These contributors include the software developers and the disaster management experts from all over the word, as well as the many funders who dedicated resources to this project. Also numbered among Sahana’s stakeholders are the different governments, companies and individuals on the user-end who have deployed the program and further contributed to its development. A compelling story of Sahana could be told from any one of their perspectives, but given the constraints of this decidely more traditional medium and its significantly less collective authorship, this booklet focuses on a few specific members and their perspectives. Thus, this narrative can be read as just one particular, but in no way privileged, thread in the collective creation that is Sahana.
  4. 4. A disaster is an emergency that a country’s organizations and established mechanisms are unable to handle alone. In such a situation, systems do not work – traditional modes of communication, of hierarchy, and ways of getting things done are simply not sufficient. Such chaos and disorder calls for extraordinarily resilient and productive collective action, assembled piece by piece - the defining characteristics of open-source software. Such an example may seem far too mundane for all the adjectives that accompany it, and even more so for the accolades it has received. However, in 2006, Sahana was named SourceForge’s Project of the Month, and shortly thereafter received the Free Software Foundation Award for Projects of Social Benefit. Most importantly, it has gone on to become a part of the world’s toolkit to deal with disasters. As a web based database program to coordinate missing people, aid, volunteers, and government camps, it brings together information and resources so that a country can, with its established organizations and mechanisms, quickly and efficiently bring a disaster under control.
  5. 5. Sanjiva Weerawarana, the Chairman and CEO of WSO2 and founder of the Lanka Software Foundation, wrote an email, long after the initial activity and frenzy of Sahana to try to put into order the events and people involved. Initially, the project was the ad-hoc product of circumstances – “various bits of software to help manage the disaster”. Despite the scale of disaster, with two-thirds of the coast affected, one million homeless, and 40 thousand dead, “the communication network was intact” and there was space to work on software, and the people with the knowledge to do so. Individuals, universities and companies in Sri Lanka, as well as international developers and organizations like SourceForge and IBM contributed to a 24- hour operation where the developed software was quickly put into production about a week after creation.
  6. 6. Mifan Careem is the CTO of Respere, a company that helps businesses and organizations fully utilize and implement Sahana, and has been an involved member in Sahana since its inception. When he started working with it, volunteers were already busy working in LSF’s Colombo University campus and University of Moratuwa students were out in the field collecting the data that was to be organized and used in Sahana. In this hectic atmosphere, it was not always an easy flow, and Sahana developers and government fieldworkers often had different views about how to get things done.
  7. 7. Louiqa Raschid, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and a member of the Sahana team since 2005, noted this problem as well. In the world of humanitarian software, there are people who know extremely well how to make software work but know very little about managing disasters, people who know how to deal with disasters but not with the technical fine points of software, and very few people who know both. However, this same incongruity between team members can be one of the most exciting parts about working with open source software. These programs bring together a wide diversity of creative independent people who are all interested in doing innovative work. And the results are, more often than not, just that. Innovative in a way that traditional software is not.
  8. 8. According to Sanjiva’s timeline, “after about three months this initial phase was completed and the software and its deployment reached a certain level of equilibrium”. During this lull in the storm, the state of disaster management software as a whole came into question, and all the actors who had frantically worked together to put together something usable began to think about Sahana’s long term prospects as a global product.
  9. 9. Chamindra de Silva, the first Project Management Committee chair and a Sahana board member, who was working at the time at Virtusa and volunteering from the very beginning with Sahana, agreed to take on a one-year position at LSF to take the program forward. With him as the project lead, the foundation applied for funding from the Swedish International Development Agency to rebuild Sahana into a comprehensive, deployable disaster management system. In the grant cover letter, Sanjiva wrote about this project “as an opportunity to help the world at a time when the world is helping Sri Lanka so willingly and widely”. When SIDA approved their funding, Sahana Phase II, the phase of improvement and next steps, began on August 1, 2005.
  10. 10. Part of moving Sahana forward into Phase II was developing its capabilities as a potential commercial product. Respere, the company that was created by Mifan as well as Pradeeper Darmendra, the company’s Director, has been the main vehicle to create a new community home for Sahana. According to Pradeeper, who is a Sahana board member and on the Project Management Committee, the Sahana application was at a certain stage where users had begun asking for more services. The program itself is very generic, and its usefulness and innovation comes from the modules that are developed to sit on top of the main database structure.
  11. 11. Companies and organizations can choose to adapt their workflow to meld with Sahana as it is, simply downloaded from the Internet. Or Respere can incorporate customized modules and adjust Sahana to work best for the organization. They have already done this for LIRNEasia and Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka, and in Bangaladesh and New York City. These pre-deployment projects get Sahana started and working before there is any sign of an immediate disaster. This method is in line with the development of Sahana as global product for disaster management, one that is well known and already put into place preceding disaster.
  12. 12. Now, the Sahana project is in Phase III of its lifetime, with many other phases perhaps to follow. It has been deployed in Pakistan, China, and the Philippines, when local governments came forward with a need and teamed up with companies like IBM to fulfill it. Sahana contributors like Ravindra de Silva, who has to date contributed the most code to the project, and emergency management expert Mark Prutsalis took the lead in ensuring a smooth deployment. Now the new challenge is to make Sahana into a really robust, easily usable product, that anyone, even some high school student somewhere, could get started using. This goal of usability is carried out on Sahana’s developer blogs, through Sahana’s presence all over the Internet, and with the feedback received from users on how it is all working for them. What is already a user-focused program is rolling forward as a user-friendly, well-crafted product.
  13. 13. Even as Sahana moves on to new applications and new audiences, both commercial and non-profit, all of its creators and users are very aware of what this program owes to the spirit of open-source. If Sahana was not developed as free and open-source software (FOSS), Sanjiva argues that it could never have become the global force it is. It does not have to be marketed or sold and the ongoing innovation and dedication to its mission that is necessary for survival comes naturally and powerfully from the community of developers. The Sahana project is proof that a community built system can be of real value.
  14. 14. For Louiqa, who had never before been involved in an open-source project, Sahana was a learning experience. She was used to working on a product where they started out with a good team and clear specifications before getting to work building the project. Open-source was the completely opposite process, where it all started from scratch with just the hope that people would join in, and that if there were mistakes, someone with expertise would come in and fix it. It was fascinating to work with a diverse group of people, often remotely, just trying to find a few spare minutes in the day to work on the program, and seeing it evolve from absolutely zero to something really big. And that is just what happened. That open, flowing process was another strength for Sahana.
  15. 15. Sahana’s creation and development marked the first venture into the world of Humanitarian FOSS. The establishment of the Free Software Foundation Award was inspired by Sahana and was a recognition of the fact that open-source software was uniquely suited to meet humanitarian needs. And now through that award, there is official recognition each year of other programs that try to do the same thing. Before Sahana there were other programs here and there that carried out parts of what Sahana does as a whole, and now there are new programs like a Swahili language project called Ushadi that has set up a reporting mechanism for people to report community news. Furthermore there is a community built around the concept of humanitarian FOSS, founded by Chamindra and Paul Currion, a Sahana contributor and humanitarian information management consultant. There is now an understanding that the ideals of community development pursued in the developer’s world can be extended in a very tangible way to the rest of the world.
  16. 16. The programmers and developers who worked and continue to work on Sahana came to it with a long list of accomplishments and experience with other software. However, they all spoke of Sahana as if it was something entirely different. Mifan talked about the developers working on the project, who as a mix of computer and humanitarian people, were a different sort of crowd. But they all shared a huge emotional and sentimental stake in the project, an involvement that grew to become yet another one of Sahana’s strengths. Chamindra spoke of how he became involved primarily because of the humanitarian aspect of the project. Other developers from all over the world became involved, wanting to help the tsunami affected countries in the immediate moment, and to contribute to the greater mission of humanitarian software after that.
  17. 17. Sahana is a program with lots of room for growth. Pradeeper noted that different modules like GIS mapping features and a function to send text message alerts are being explored and could become a part of the system in the near future. But even beyond these technical aspects, Sahana has demonstrated the power and utility it has on its own as a program, and how much potential for meaningful social change it has. 16
  18. 18. As Sanjiva says of the system, it is a program that they at Lanka Software Foundation helped to create, it was successful, and now they are letting it go. With this launch, Sahana becomes a separate entity from the organization and country that helped nurture it and coalesce the forces necessary for its growth. Now the Sahana development community is well in place, and ready to ensure that this product becomes a global brand. And this attitude of creation, which is all about nurturing and giving, is the beauty of Sahana, of open-source, and of the community that created it. That is certainly something to have brought into being from the destruction and chaos of a tsunami. 15
  19. 19. The Sahana community wishes to acknowledge, in this limited format, the many significant contributions of members of the Sahana Project Management Committee and the Sahana Board, including the following members: David Bitner Francis P. Boon Paul Currion Ravindra de Silva Dominic Koenig Ajay Kumar Mark Prutsalis Gavin Treadgold
  20. 20. And, to recognize that these past four years and the many more to come would not have been possible without the support of the following sponsors::