May 26, 2007

The Roots of Sahana

Filed under: Development,FOSS,Linux,Sahana,Varsity — mifan @ 7:23 pm

Recently, Dr. Sanjiva Weerawarna, posted an article on the Sahana lists, regarding the history of Sahana. This was very insightful, and came as an eye opener for many, regarding the history of Sahana. I, who was there from the inception of Sahana as well, didn’t know half of this :p, as I worked on the Sahana modules from the University of Moratuwa. I also spent a month at the Center for National Operations in Sri Lanka, so I’ll be adding a bit more to this when time permits.

Anyway, this article deserves to be blogged. A true masterpiece, and a true eye-opener:
So let me take a bit of time to write a short narrative
of the story of Sahana .. told from my memory and perspective. My
apologies if I missed any key people (I probably did :(..) and for any
other mistakes in my narrative. I’m on a long flight so I don’t have net
access to check my old blogs to validate the dates. If anyone is
interested you can read the blogs I wrote during the tsunami to see the
gory details of the really early days; Google will help you find those.

Sunday, December 26th, 2004. Tsunami hits Indonesia, Sri Lanka and many
other Asian countries. In the first week of the tunami, 1m people (or 5%
of our population) was homeless. 2/3rds of Sri Lanka’s coast was affected
in some way. Later on we find that nearly 40,000 of our people have died.

Tuesday, December 28th, 2004. Many different organizations in Sri Lanka
start efforts to write various bits of software to help manage the
disaster. (This bit of the story was repeated in other countries- India,
Indonesia, Thailand etc..)

Wednesday, December 29th, 2004. Many of these folks get together at the
ICT Agency in Narahenpita, Sri Lanka to discuss ways of putting the
software all together to make it easier to manage the situation. That nite
I called the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s CIOs office
(after finding the phone number in a powerpoint presentation he had done
proposing developing a disaster management software system) and asked for
whatever software they had. I was told that FEMA had no software that
could help .. they only had software that was used to cut checks to people
after hurricanes.

In the 3-4 weeks that followed, many many individuals, universities and
software companies and Sri Lanka Telecom contributed to what became known
as Sahana. Amongst the IT companies, Virtusa was the leading contributor
with more than 75 of their engineering staff helping at some time or the
other. While most contributors to the initial effort were from Sri Lanka,
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the urgent support we got from folks at (which we didn’t end up using) and later SourceForge. We
desperately needed a code repository and other infra (like mailing lists)
and these folks willingly and urgently came out of their holiday slumber
and got everything that we needed. Special mention also needs to go IBM’s
Crisis Response Team lead by Brent Woodworth, who were then regular
visitors to Sri Lanka. From day 1 that entire team supported, encouraged
and cheered on the Sahana effort. In fact a good part of the initial
development was done on 15 notebooks that IBM donated within a week or so
of the tsunami.

This joint effort was organized and managed by the Lanka Software
Foundation. In the early days we had a 24×7 operation and the first bits
of software went into production use in about a week. Over time more and
more capabilities were added and used in various ways. After about 3
months this initial phase was completed and the software and its
deployment reached a certain level of equilibrium.

In the meantime, it became clear to us that there was a huge hole in the
world of disaster management software. The state of the art that the UN
team that came to Sri Lanka with was a system called SUMA- something
written on FoxPRO. (Anyone remember FoxPRO? Yes, that was the
pre-relational desktop database system from Microsoft!) IBM had some stuff
based on Lotus Notes but it wasn’t easily deployable, scalable and, most
importantly, didn’t embrace the Web. The tsunami gave us a unique
opportunity to look at disaster management in the modern world: even
though there was sooo much death and damage, the communication network was
in tact. Cell phones worked. The IP networks worked. Land-lines worked. A
modern disaster management system must work in a connected environment ..
and if communication has indeed failed (as often happens in earthquake
type disasters) its now quite easy to airdrop a box that sets up a local
communication network with a satellite uplink. Clearly, there was a huge
need for modern software that could live in this world and help first
responders and follow-up recovery folks be more effective at responding
and managing a disaster.

We were not going to let Sahana die; we decided we are going to make it
into something the world can reuse readily. “We” at the time was primarily
Jivaka Weeratunge, co-founder of LSF and its then volunteer COO, and myself.

Chamindra de Silva, who had been one of the original people from Virtusa
who started the people registry which became a key component of Sahana,
agreed to leave his job at Virtusa and take a 1-year position in LSF to
take Sahana forward if we could get the funding for it. Chamindra became
part of the “let’s take sahana forward” team.

On February 11th 2005 I wrote the following in a cover letter on the
proposal we submitted to Ms. Asa Heijne, First Secretary of the Swedish
Embassy in Colombo along with a proposal seeking Rs. 8.548m (approximately
$85k) in funding from the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA)
to re-do Sahana:

“Further to our discussions in late January, enclosed please find a
proposal to further develop the Sahana Relief Management system into a
fully reusable, globalized relief management system. We believe the
potential global impact of such software will be tremendous and view this
as an opportunity to help the world at a time when the world is helping
Sri Lanka so willingly and widely.”

SIDA approved our proposal and Sahana phase II started with that funding
on August 1st 2005. I also want to acknowledge the contribution of
Per-Einar Troften in getting this funding- Per-Einar is in SIDA in Sweden.
He and Asa have (with the grant of $100k to start the Apache Axis2 project
and the Sahana grant) singlehandedly (two-handedly?) changed the role of
Sri Lanka in the FOSS world. If not for their trust in what LSF was
proposing to do Sahana wouldn’t exist in its current shape today.

I must also acknowledge LSF’s co-founder and then COO Jivaka Weeratunge-
he’s the one who helped manage LSF and make sure that we ran a superbly
tight and clear ship which made it easier for a funding agency to trust
us. Oh yeah, Jivaka was a total volunteer doing all of that, as is the
entire LSF Board. Jivaka was a key part of the strategy behind LSF overall
and then both and Sahana as we took them forward.

I think the following paragraphs we put in the proposal about why open
source was a critical component of disaster management may be useful for
folks to read:

“Very few countries and organizations today can afford to invest a lot of
resources in disaster management when there is no disaster present. While
this is obviously true of poor, developing nations, it is also true of
richer, developed countries as well because there are always higher
priority items that need the funding. Worse yet, even if there are some
national scale systems that may get deployed, it is very unlikely that
regional and local level systems will ever get deployed if they cost any
significant amount of resources.

Because no one is willing to pay for the software, no one is willing to
build it either. This is what we see in the world today – while disaster
management software is critically needed, there is no complete commercial
or non-commercial software solution that is widely available.
Going the open source way can address both these concerns. Using the open
source development model, it is possible to develop this software at a
much reduced cost compared to pure commercial development models. This is
true because while commercial entities are not willing to invest into
these systems, there are hundreds and thousands of well-meaning IT
professionals who are very happy to donate a few hours of effort to
helping build such systems. We are already seeing this with the nascent
Sahana project. Thus if there was a small team which was driving such a
project, then it is possible to get a lot of assistance from the global IT
community to make those systems truly exceptional.

Going with open source approaches can also greatly reduce the deployment
cost of this software in peace (i.e., non-disaster) times. The Sahana
system, for example, can be deployed on any PC with just a Linux LiveCD
(that is, a CD from which the entire system can be booted up and brought
on-line). Thus, not only is it possible to run this on commodity,
inexpensive hardware, it is in fact possible to not even have dedicated
hardware around – just take any office PC and make that the “disaster
management center”! In fact, that is how Sahana was first deployed in Sri
Lanka – on a borrowed PC. (Later it switched to running on a borrowed
server as the capacity requirements increased.)

Thus, open source is the natural way to providing disaster management

So that’s how Sahana Phase II was born.

LSF has managed the Sahana project (and charges 20% overhead on the human
resources part of the budget to do it .. a grand total of Rs. 1.008m or
around $10k for phase II) with the LSF board being the final authority for
how the Sahana team was deployed.

For those of you who know nothing about LSF- the board of LSF consists of
local software company senior executives (usually CEOs), heads of CS
departments of the 4 main public universities in Sri Lanka) and a few
other distinguished individuals. The board is not compensated and everyone
participates to help improve Sri Lanka’s position in FOSS- not for direct
commercial or personal benefit. We’re of course a non-profit organization
legally registered in Sri Lanka. LSF’s finances are annually audited by
Ernst & Young in Sri Lanka.

What LSF does is find the funding for and run projects like Sahana.

After the funding for Sahana from SIDA finished at the end of July 2006,
we’ve received a few additional grants .. with special thanks again to IBM
for both cash and significant hardware donations. Google also donated some
funds for LSF/Sahana.

Sahana has of course been a TREMENDOUS success. Kudos go to the core
development team (Chamindra, Pradeeper, Ravindra, Mifan and the rest of
the gang) for producing superb software, the committed bunch of folks on
the Sahana mailing lists (with special mention to Paul, Louiqa, Don and
Gav) and to the numerous others who have helped with developing Sahana,
deploying it or just talking about it. Special mention must go here to the
efforts of the IBM Crisis Response Team in deploying Sahana in numerous
disaster and pre-disaster situations. On the recognition side, the recent
FSF Award is clearly the high point, being the second recipient of that
after Wikipedia. The list of deployments of Sahana is absolutely
incredible .. and now includes both poor and rich (richest?) countries.

In this context the LSF Board started thinking last year about how to best
take Sahana forward and about the role of the LSF Board. We concluded that
the best thing to do was to hand over “reigns” of the LSF part of Sahana
to a new team of people who would be focused purely on making Sahana climb
as high as it can. In doing that, we CLEARLY separated the successful FOSS
project that Sahana is from the LSF managed work in developing and
deploying Sahana. In order to further the FOSS project of Sahana, we
created the Sahana Project Management Committee, modeled closely on the
Apache Software Foundation’s model. The FOSS project and the PMC are
purely community efforts- while we created the PMC, the future membership
of the PMC will be determined by the current PMC members. We bootstrapped
it and now its off on its own. Good luck!

The board has been appointed by LSF and will take overall charge of all
LSF activities related to Sahana, including budgets. Sahana Board members
are all volunteers and we’re extremely grateful for their willingness to
help take Sahana forward. LSF is the underlying legal authority for the
activities that the Sahana Board governs.

The specific roles and responsibilities of the community, PMC and the
Board were documented in an email I posted to this list earlier. See:

I hope this helps people understand how Sahana got started and how it has
evolved. Most importantly, I hope it makes clear the governance structure
of Sahana and its intrinsically open nature.

I personally drove the creation of this model (in close consultation with
a bunch of folks, esp. Chamindra, Louiqa, Paul, Don, Gav, Pradeeper and
more) and I used my 10+ years of experience with Apache and other open
source efforts to help create what I think is an absolutely open model.
That said, there’s always room for improving the structure and activities-
make constructive suggestions and I’m sure the community, the PMC, the
Sahana Board and the LSF Board will be willing listeners!


May 20, 2007

Sahana and me at ISCRAM 2007, Delft, Netherlands

Filed under: Development,FOSS,Linux,Sahana,Varsity — mifan @ 7:26 pm

My latest trip was to the wonderfully beautiful Netherlands. ISCRAM 2007, the conference on crisis response and management, was held in Delft, Netherlands from the 13th to 17th May, 2007. Thus I made my way cross country, to present my research paper “GIS integration in the Sahana disaster management system”, which was also co-authored by David Bitner and Ravindra de Silva.
ISCRAM consisted of the perfect audience for Disaster and Crisis Management. The participants included specialists, academics and practitioners in this space, and thus Sahana was welcome with open hands. This being my first time at ISCRAM, I was suprised and honored by the large community revolving around disaster management, crisis management, and related ontologies. There were many ongoing research projects, and many other implementations too, as solutions to various aspects in this space.
My presenatation, which was presented under the “Geographical Information Science for Crisis Management” Session, supposedly went well. I was honored to be congratulated on the outcome of it by many greats, including Dr. Eric Rasmussen and Prof. Ralph Morelly, amongst others. The audience was supportive, and the questions were great. There was also a comment that another group was going to use the same architecture that the Sahana GIS uses, to solve many real world problems that arise.
There was also supposedly a BOF discussion on ontology, which I with many others managed to miss 😦 However, I hope this would turn into a collaborative effort, with participants from many diverse communities chipping in. All in all, ISCRAM was a success, and a great gathering. Special thanks to the organizers and the participants for making this a raving success.

May 6, 2007

Bug-fest, Code-fest at Sahana

Filed under: Development,FOSS,Linux,Sahana — mifan @ 9:10 pm

After weeks of being threatened by those pesky bugs, Fran Boon, being the giant that he is ;), suggested a bug-fest day. Thus was inspired the first Sahana bug-fest, on the 7th of May, 2007, 0400 GMT. We hope to track down all those runaway bugs visible on Sourceforge’s bug tracker, and close them down. All hands on the deck, as they say, and lets try to clean the place up. On another note, however, I am reminded of this great quote:

“Some days you are the bug, some days you are the windshield.”

April 17, 2007

Lights, camera, RMS with the flute

Filed under: FOSS,Life,Linux,Music,Sahana — mifan @ 8:43 pm

Being a sucker for music myself, I recognize the value of a musical instrument for musicians. Thus, we as the Sahana team ended up presenting Richard Stallman of FSF fame with 2 flutes from Sri Lanka: The traditional wooden flute, and the snake charming flute, to well, charm Snakes 😉

Knowing RMS to be a musician himself, who prefers playing the Recorder flute (so do I, hooray!), the gifts were an instant hit. I’ve embedded a video below of a rare moment where RMS plays his new gift, the snake charming flute. Unfortunately, the only snakes around were, well, us 🙂

RMS demonstrated his skills at Dinner in Chinatown the next day, where he played the recorder flute in the restaurant. However, he did have stiff competition that day as a small girl at the next table had a recorder flute as well, and the restaurant was filled with flying notes. Luckily we managed to escape with minimum bruises.

Sahana meets GeoMancers of Boston

Filed under: Development,FOSS,Life,Linux,Sahana — mifan @ 8:13 pm

I hate late blog posts. But hey, someone’s got to do them. So, the day before the FSF awards ceremony, we met up with the GeoMancers (hope I got the naming right) of Boston, M.A. We met Adam Holt, Allan Doyle and Boy Genius, Chris Scmidt, amongst others. Chris works for Metacarta, and as a lead behind Openlayers, is an important figurehead for Sahana :). As a frequent reader of his blog, I got the chance to meet the boy behind the ramblings.

The meeting went well, after we managed to track down all loitering mancers. We spent the day musing on the importance of maps, the effect of Openlayers, the need for an on the move Googlemaps solution to replace our own paper maps of Boston, and the importance of having lunch on time, with frequent jokes from the folk from the Institute of Infinitely Small Things.

Sahana meets GeoMancers of Boston

April 3, 2007

Sahana wins FSF Award

Filed under: Development,FOSS,Life,Linux,Sahana,Varsity — mifan @ 8:58 pm

Finally, the cat is out of the bag. Sahana, the FOSS Disaster management system, received the biggest recognition that the Free Software Foundation provides to projects: The FSF award for social benefit . This, amazingly is the only other award given by the FSF, the other being the award for Advancement of Free Software, whose recipient was Ted Ts’o this year.
The awards ceremony was held at the annual FSF general meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Boston, U.S.A on the 24th of March 2007. 4 members of the Sahana team, namely Pradeeper Dharmendra, Chamindra de Silva, Ravindra de Silva and yours truly: Mifan Careem, attended the AGM/Ceremony to receive the award.
This is undoubtedly the biggest award the Sahana project has received in recent years. According to Richard Stallman, founder of the FSF, the FSF award for Social benefit is given to projects that make best use of Free Software, and provides benefits to society as a whole. The fact that this award was inspired by the Sahana project 2 years ago, adds more value to it. Whilst presenting the award, Richard Stallman said “We were inspired to create this award when we heard of the tremendous good the Sahana project was able to achieve through the use of free software. With this award we give recognition to their efforts”.Thus, Sahana received the FSF award for social benefit for 2006. The 2005 FSF award was given to Wikipedia, which speaks volumes itself. Every year, three finalists are nominated for the award by the free software community. This year’s other two finalists were Project Gutenberg and the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).
This award belongs to the Sahana community as a whole, not just the development team. Thank you all for the support, the criticism and the motivation.
Now its time for the party hats, and possibly a party as well? 🙂

More Photos>>

Sahana wins FSF Award

March 20, 2007

Sahana Initiatives

Filed under: FOSS,Life,Linux,Sahana — mifan @ 8:00 pm

Francis from the Philippines has achieved what we have spent an eternity trying to finalize: Creating a graphic for the Sahana live CD version. The collection of Sahana based pins were created for a Rotary District Convention, where Bobby and Francis are presenting Sahana. IMHO, the pins look absolutely stunning, would look really great on a CD as well 🙂
Its great to see the increased interest in Sahana after AsiaSource II. Its a great feeling to know that we are not alone in this quest, and that we have friends all around us. Special appreciation should be given to the Indonesian initiative by Didieb, Agus, Bono, Yasmin et al, which was followed by a Sahana demo/workshop for NGOs. Some time ago, there was a similar initiative from Roberto in Philippines as well, where Sahana was presented at an exhibition/conference. There was also separate initiatives by Francis, Alvin, Jerome, Magie et al from the Philippines for the promotion of Sahana. There are also many individual awareness campaigns that I know nothing off 🙂
The world is a wonderful place, with lots of wonderful people. We are happy that we were able to inspire these talented groups at AsiaSource II, and hope that they would continue to the wonderful job they are doing ATM.

March 19, 2007

Sahana for Google Summer of Code 2007

Filed under: Development,FOSS,Linux,Sahana,Varsity — mifan @ 7:51 pm

The Google Summer of Code is on again, and its time to send in those great applications. Sahana is represented by the Lanka Software Foundation this year as well, as its parent organization. We would like to call upon all interested students to send in their applications on Sahana, before the 24th March. Tentative ideas for the Sahana project are on the Sahana wiki, but that’s just the limit of our somewhat limited imagination 🙂 You are more than welcome to send in all those creative ideas as well: and let the best ideas triumph.

Maybe I should change my role from a student and recipient of Google SoC 2006, to a mentor of Google SoC 2007 this time around? Only time will tell 🙂 Meanwhile, keep up the good work, Google.

January 10, 2007

Sahana mentioned in MySQL article

Filed under: Development,FOSS,Linux,Sahana,Varsity — mifan @ 8:50 am

Sahana is mentioned along side many great projects in a MySQL article, An Open Letter to the Community from MySQL Founders David Axmark & Michael Widenius. According to the Site:

Some other awe-inspiring MySQL stats that show the momentum of MySQL:
Major free software projects and hugely-popular Web sites such as the Sahana (disaster recovery system for the tsunami), and Human Genome Project (used for cancer research), Wikipedia, Bugzilla, Craigslist, Feedster, Flickr, Freshmeat, LiveJournal, Neopets, Slashdot, SugarCRM, Technorati, WordPress, CERN’s ATLAS Experiment — all taking advantage of MySQL’s speed, ease of use, flexibility, scalability and ecosystem

Now isn’t that a great list to be in? Definitely something to write home about. Thanks for the recognition guys, and we sure can hope for better times to come.

December 24, 2006

The Festive Sahana Rudolph

Filed under: Development,FOSS,Linux,Mobile,Sahana,Varsity — mifan @ 8:15 pm

The modified version of the song is sung as follows: 2 Days before Christmas my true love gave to me:  Version 0.5 Alpha of the Sahana Disaster Management System, Free 🙂 (I even got it to rhyme!). This latest version of Sahana is integrated with messaging, which currently includes the ability to send messages via email and SMS. The latter works via a mobile phone acting as a GSM Modem, connected to the Kannel SMS Gateway. This release also sees GIS integration into the Organization Registry and the Inventory Management System. Excerpts from the official release by the Release Manager:
Sahana project is happy to announce the ‘0.5-Alpha’ release during
this festive season, also code named ‘Rudolph’. In this release, there
are number of improved features like, messaging capability using
SMS/Mail, tight GIS integration, handling confirmation/error messages
and many more.
Also two new modules were added to expand the capability of Sahana,
namely “Volunteer Management” (to manage volunteers) and
“Synchronization” (to synchronize the data between two or more sahana
instances) modules.

Check out the packaged versions at the Download site. Cheers, and Merry Christmas!

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