Open Source

IT pros are pitching in to help Katrina victims

Linux developer Steve Hargadon has spearheaded a project called Public Web Stations in which he and a team of volunteers are trying to set up a massive number of publicly-accessible Linux-based computers that people displaced by Katrina can use to access e-mail and relief resources. Hargadon has set up a special CD-based Linux distro called LiveCD that can run on a Pentium 2 or above with 128 MB of RAM, a CD drive, and a network card. The CD basically runs a Firefox kiosk. They have already set up their first public access site in an old Wal-Mart building (Wally moved to a new location) in McKinney, Texas — the Dallas area. They are now looking for donations of time, money, bandwidth, and old equipment to create similar sites in other areas and are also looking to mobilize and coordinate other volunteers. For more info, check out publicwebstations.com.

A group of developers and IT pros from Microsoft headed to Texas last Wednesday (Aug. 31) to pitch in with the Katrina relief efforts. That night they started coding an application that was aimed at helping victims and relief workers. But as the situation developed and the crisis deepened, they saw a need for a different type of app, and so they scrapped their original code and by Saturday started developing a new app called KatrinaSafe, which helps evacuees and family members find one another. The developers started KatrinaSafe at noon on Saturday and had finished it by 9:00 PM on Sunday.

Working from the Microsoft Technology Center in Austin, Texas, a group of IT pros from California, Florida, Alabama and Texas banded together to build the app using Microsoft-donated software — Visual Basic, C#, SQL Server, Microsoft Speech Server, and more — to create a Web application that allows people to register their personal info on the site and search for the names of friends and family that are missing. It also has an alert system so that someone can be alerted via phone or e-mail when a person they are looking for registers on the site. There's also the capacity to leave a voicemail message for someone. And there's a smart client application for relief workers to retrieve and enter data into the system to help broaden the database and make it useful even to those who don't know how to use computers or don't have access to them.

In this Yahoo article, Microsoft developer J Sawyer said, "Picture this ... a family waiting to hear from a loved one who was in the disaster area. They've not heard from them since the hurricane hit. Then they get a call saying that their loved one has been found and is at such-and-such evacuation center. That's what we're working for."

"Ultimately it's not about the code; it's about the people," said Jim Carroll, the manager of the project. "We're lucky enough to work for a company that supported this project. And we couldn't have done it without our partners. Not one single company said no. It's been a privilege to be a part of it."

It's great to see IT folks using their powers for good.

About Jason Hiner

Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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