Red Rain

Tuesday morning, 9:00 AM. It’s sunny in the flat outskirts of San Antonio. Wisps of summer’s residual heat serve as reminders that it is, after all, only September. A child cries loudly on the tarmac. Strangers – stand, sit, stroll, play – blithely near the child. Not to worry: surely its mother is at hand.

Inside the hangar, thousands more. Standing in lines, sitting in groups, sleeping on cots. Everywhere the sights, the smells, the sounds, the touch – of people. Welcome to Kelly Air Force Base, Building 1536. Welcome to the largest makeshift Red Cross shelter in San Antonio.

Welcome to the aftermath of Katrina.

With the Trust of a Child

Late last summer, I seriously considered a radical career change. After several great years in the software industry, I began to feel like I needed to put my skills to something that more directly helps people in need. I was offered the opportunity to head the IT department of International Justice Mission, an ingenious non-profit with the noble vision of saving the oppressed and defenseless throughout the world. For weeks, my wife and I debated the prospect of quitting my cushy day job, moving across the country, and serving one of the world’s best non-profits. In the end, for a variety of complex reasons, we made the decision to stay at Microsoft. However, I set my mind to doing something noble for the world, even here in Seattle. Microsoft does, after all, have a long history and culture of philanthropy.

I talked with my manager about this decision and my subsequent resolve to support humanitarian efforts at Microsoft. Little did I know that I would only need to wait a few weeks before the opportunity presented itself.

Barely a week after Hurricane Katrina hit, my vice president and my manager offered me a chance to bring several developers and cases full of Tablet PCs down to affected areas. I sent out a few emails, placed a few calls, and found out that the San Antonio Microsoft office was helping local Red Cross shelters and needed developers. My wife and two teammates volunteered to go with me. Before you knew it, we were on a plane headed to San Antonio, carrying cases full of computer equipment prepared and donated by Microsoft’s Mobile Platforms Division.

Buried in a Sheltered Place in this Town

Suffice it to say that I had no idea what I was in for. I was told they needed manpower, computers, and perhaps some software automation. I assumed we would arrive, set up shop, and begin coding.

The Disaster Relief Fairyland in my mind goes something like this:

Several hours after the disaster, the military and the Red Cross have restored order. Shelters have been set up according to Red Cross’ decades of worldwide disaster response experience. The tired are resting, the hungry are fed, the lost are found, the grieving are comforted. FEMA, Red Cross officials, the military, and local politicians are doing a rousing rendition of USA for Africa’s We Are The World . A lone heartfelt tear rests on the cheek of a young audience member as the leading FEMA representative bursts into, “There’s a choice we’re making… we’re saving our own lives…”

The reality, which you by now have guessed or read about but could never truly believe unless you see, hear, and smell it yourself, was that we arrived a little over a week after the hurricane to the deafening roar of 17,000 fans ready to rock.

Hehe. Somewhere deep inside of me, I tend to indulge the Disaster Relief Fairyland more than I probably should.

We actually arrived at Kelly Air Force Base, where 17,000 displaced Katrina evacuees were housed in two mega-structures. The larger of the two buildings, Kelly 1536, is a hangar roughly a third of a mile long. It covers the area of fifteen football fields under one giant enclosure. You’d get the same effect if you joined four Costco warehouses together, removed all the shelving and merchandise, and invited all the shoppers’ extended families to live there. Cots were packed so tightly in this space that it seemed you could walk the building end to end without touching the ground.

I Can’t Watch Anymore… No More Denial…

But I’m not here to tell you about the overall experience helping out at the San Antonio Red Cross shelters. (If you’re really enamored, feel free to read the team’s blog on that subject). I’m here to tell you how software can radically revolutionize disaster response.

First, let’s talk about missing people. In ad-hoc mass evacuations, families get inadvertently separated. When we arrived in San Antonio, there were – this is not a typo – sixteen separate databases tracking missing people (well, fourteen, if you discount “paper” and “by memory” as non-ACID databases). This meant that separated family members were very difficult to find. Which database should volunteers search in? The International Red Cross’? Wait a minute, I hear the American Red Cross’ is actually the official one. Then there’s KatrinaSafe. But the City of San Antonio insists on their home-grown database…

None of the databases supported photographs of missing persons. A simple enough feature, one that wouldn’t be at all hard to implement. Why photographs? Well, some folks can’t identify themselves. In one of the shelters, a lost developmentally-challenged child was left unfed for a day because everyone assumed he was being taken care of. The parents, needless to say, had no way of searching for their child. A database that included photographs of people that can’t identify themselves would be a great way to solve this problem.

Take inventory tracking. Everyday, truckloads of donations would be unloaded into the hangar. Inevitably, the donations consisted mostly of toys. Especially crayons. I am not making this up. I saw tables stacked high with Crayola crayons. Fat ones. Thin ones. Mega packs. Scented ones. Pastel. The only thing they had in common was that every last box was unused.

Donated inventory was tracked on legal pads. Truckloads of goods counted on long yellow sheets of paper written in pencil. Do we have blankets? I don’t know – check the pad. Where’s the pad? I don’t know – under the crayons, perhaps. Which crayons?! There are like a gazillion tables piled full of crayons! It was ridiculous. It would have been Seinfeld-scale comedic if it wasn’t so tragic.

Imagine with me for a moment that Dell managed Red Cross donations. (Give this thought a moment to soak in… it’s a profound one… Ok, now you’re ready.) Donors would be able to check inventories in San Antonio and notice that diapers were in desperate need, instead of, say, vintage crayon collections. Shortages in one shelter could be offset by surpluses in another. Donors’ credit cards wouldn’t be charged until the very second that food enters an evacuee’s mouth. Every quarter, major donors would be called in and publicly spanked in front of their competitors for not having as timely or as high-quality donations. (Ok, that last bit is probably a dose of Dell-reality that we could do without in the world of humanitarian aid. But everything else stands.)

One last example of how software could greatly improve humanitarian response: let’s talk about volunteer tracking. Every day at Kelly Air Force Base, more than a thousand volunteers would come and go from the two gigantic buildings. At first, volunteers were tracked on whiteboards with Post-It notes (written in crayon, no doubt). A thousand volunteers a day! You can imagine the mess that this was. (“Uh, Bob, I think Joanne’s Post-It just fell off the board… where was she working again?”).

It’s mind-blowing how much the world of humanitarian aid needs software.

This Place Is So Quiet, Sensing That Storm

Why isn’t there Red Cross 9.0, a shiny little CD that every shelter manager gets on the first day of a disaster? It’d have all your favorite hits from the ‘80’s, as well as software that tracks missing persons, manages inventory, allocates volunteers, and keeps you connected to nearby shelter managers. It’d even search for extraterrestrials while your computer is idle.

While in San Antonio, our team wrote software that helped track volunteers at Kelly Air Force Base. By the time we were done, all volunteers could be registered into one common database from multiple terminals via a simple client-server design. Allocations of volunteers to different areas could be easily monitored and adjusted. Data re-entry was eliminated. No more whiteboards, no more Post-Its, no more blunted crayons. Similar systems were set up by the great folks from RackSpace who worked day and night to create a web interface based on Ruby on Rails. (I tried earnestly to embrace Linux, learn Ruby, and extend their system. But I kept getting odd failures in package installation. Seriously. I would frankly love to be able to say at dinner parties that I worked in a language that was “on rails,” but alas, it was not meant to be.)

The volunteers working at the shelters loved the software. It saved a ton of time and was a much-needed improvement over what was available. We deployed it at two other shelters, and FEMA also began to use it (hold the jokes, please). After its success at multiple locations, I was riding high on hopes that the Red Cross would spread the word and start including it as a basic part of running any shelter.

But that was not to be the case. As dust from the aftermath of Katrina settled, I got in touch with whoever I could at the Red Cross to hand over the volunteer tracking software. Free of charge! Ready to use! Clearly valuable! I was shamelessly begging the Red Cross to take it and use it. I contacted the head of IT at San Antonio’s Red Cross. A disaster-management consultant demoed it to the Red Cross and FEMA in DC. I tried to find anyone – anyone – that had an interest.

Dead silence. (Imagine tumbleweed blowing gently across the page)

I’m not sure what it is, but no one at the Red Cross seems to have an interest in the strategic long-term importance of software in improving Red Cross’ effectiveness. Whither Red Cross 9.0? How long will shelters be run on paper, and technology be cobbled together ad-hoc after every disaster, only to be discarded after each use? It’s a waste and a tragedy.

If you’re to remember only two things from this posting:

1) Software can make a huge difference to the effectiveness of humanitarian response. I’ve seen it with mine own eyes. The amount of waste and inefficiency in today’s system is tragic. We might as well put fistfuls of cash in a 50-gallon oil drum, toss in some crayons, and light the whole shebang on fire.

2) The Red Cross needs to embrace the strategic importance of software in their mission. Something is very wrong if developers from all sorts of companies are writing custom software for Red Cross shelters during each emergency. Something is very wrong if we can’t even give away free software to the Red Cross so that it can be used in the next disaster.

I belabor the point. Lest we end on a down note: the experience of volunteering in San Antonio was hugely rewarding and personally fulfilling. The dedication of the volunteers on the ground was awe-inspiring. I only wish there was a way to get the Red Cross to understand how truly critical software is to their mission. In the end, sheer human willpower was able to triumph over a tragedy of process and infrastructure.

Here’s to better use of software in our next disaster.

[From the Random Facts department: Peter Gabriel was apparently not making it up. There have indeed been incidents of red rain in parts of the world, the most famous of which was in Kerala, India during 2001. Read more at Wikipedia.]