Engineers illustrate how technology can serve in disaster-relief efforts

L.A. Cicero Warning panel

Leonard Ortolano (left), director of the Haas Center, moderated a panel Friday on technological responses to natural disasters. The panel included engineers Ashok Gadgil (center) and Arvind Prabhudev (right).

"When the relief workers arrive after a disaster, what is the first thing they need?" asked Dipak Basu, a Reuters Fellow at Stanford's Digital Vision Program, at a campus forum on disaster relief on April 22. "Communications," he answered. "They need a way to talk with the rest of the world, to request supplies and to let the world know what is going on."

Basu and two other engineers participated in a panel discussion on the technological responses and challenges that followed the December 2004 tsunami disaster in Asia. All three men have extensive background working with international development organizations to bring crucial technology to the developing world. The discussion was moderated by Leonard Ortolano, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the director of the Haas Center for Public Service. The event, held at the Haas Center, was the third in a series of panels on post-tsunami reconstruction called "After the Waves." The series is hosted by the Haas Center, Engineers for a Sustainable World and Stanford Student Relief.

Another panelist, Ashok Gadgil, the 2004-05 MAP/Ming Visiting Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, described his invention, the UV Waterworks, a device powered by a car battery or a 60-watt solar cell that disinfects water by bombarding it with ultraviolet light rays that kill all pathogens. The device operates as water is pumped in one end and flows by gravity down a long trough. One UV Waterworks can disinfect 4 gallons of water per minute, approximately the same rate that water flows out of a bathtub spout.

Gadgil designed the UV Waterworks for developing countries, where contaminated drinking water is one of the primary causes of disease and death for children. It is especially well suited for emergency relief situations in which normal water supplies may be contaminated. It is also cheap, disinfecting water at a cost of 5 cents for every 1,000 gallons, and it is small, about the size of a microwave oven. Because of the broad impact of this technology on developing countries, Gadgil received a Discover magazine award in 1996 for the most significant environmental invention of the year.

PortabilityThe portability of technology is very important in relief work, said Basu, whose work with the Digital Vision Program has focused on providing emergency communications to the fishers and farmers of the Sunderbans mangrove islands in the Ganges River delta. As program director of NetHope, a consortium of the world's largest nongovernmental aid organizations involved in providing information technology to the developing world, Basu has been involved in delivering communications technology to the regions hardest hit by the tsunami. He and other engineers at NetHope have designed NetReliefKits (NRKs), which consist of a phone and router for laptop hookup. The NRKs are equipped with mini satellite modems to provide Internet service in the field, and all of the parts can be powered by a car battery.

Organizations such as World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children and Oxfam relied heavily on NRKs during the early days following the tsunami, he said. For example, Lamno, a remote region in Sumatra, was one of the areas most devastated by the tsunami. According to Basu, NRKs provided by NetHope were used by World Vision aid workers to coordinate relief efforts in the region.

The third panelist, Arvind Prabhudev, a software engineer with Cisco Systems, discussed the challenge of needs assessment and technology implementation. As a volunteer for the past four years with Volunteers for India Development and Empowerment (VIDE), Prabhudev has worked to bring innovations, such as UV Waterworks and the NRKs, to communities that need them.

EducationWhile technology can improve the quality of life in developing countries, it also can raise sensitive cultural issues, Prabhudev said. Rules of etiquette based on local customs must be carefully followed to introduce technology successfully, he said, noting that it's best when members of a community identify for themselves a technological need that aid workers can then address.

"It depends on the knowledge of the community," Gadgil agreed. "If everyone in the village believes that it was the evil eye that caused their children's diarrhea, then you may have a difficult time convincing them of the need for a water-disinfection system."

Education, therefore, is a central part of introducing a new technology on a community level. Prabhudev emphasized the need for experts within a community who know how to operate the technology and what to do when it breaks down. VIDE has introduced training programs in local schools as one way to educate a community. Access to replacement parts is also a linchpin for success, Prabhudev added.

According to Gadgil, if the education or the repair materials are missing, then even the best inventions amount to nothing more than "technological junk" when the volunteers pack up and go home. The goal of technology should be sustainable use by the community it is meant to benefit, he added.

Located at the university's Center for the Study of Language and Information, the Digital Vision Program supports social entrepreneurs who seek to leverage technology-based solutions in the interest of humanitarian, educational and sustainable development goals. The program is underwritten by the Reuters Foundation.

Kendall Madden is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.