December 2010

No innovation matters more than that which saves lives.”

Avelino J. Cruz, Jr.,
Secretary of National Defense of the Philippines,
on the use of Sahana following disastrous mudslides in 2005


The Sahana Software Foundation governs humanitarian free and open source software (HFOSS) projects that address the information-coordination challenges of disaster management. Sahana software has been proven effective and is recommended by numerous industry sources from both the emergency management and business sectors. It fulfills critical needs to enable organizations responding to disasters to share information across organizational lines and to track and effectively manage disaster efforts. These needs are substantial and are growing because of climate change and urban population growth, which is leaving increasing numbers of people vulnerable and susceptible to the effects of disasters.

Sahana fills a unique niche in the toolkit of emergency and disaster response agencies because it facilitates critical information sharing and coordination of efforts across all types of organizations and individuals involved, and is readily flexible to the needs that arise from any particular disaster. The software has its roots in the open source business community and has always been strongly supported by that industry. In this article, we describe an industry opportunity in HFOSS and provide evidence that Sahana software can be successfully commercialized. These factors make it a ripe time for open source businesses to engage cooperatively with the Sahana Software Foundation to support the growth of a service industry around Sahana software and HFOSS.


Sudden-onset natural disasters have a devastating political, economic, social, and human impact on a society. The 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami left almost a quarter of a million dead, 500,000 injured, 5 million homeless, 1 million jobless, and caused at least $7.5 billion in damages across several countries. Hurricane Katrina submerged New Orleans the next summer, and dispersed thousands of the evacuees across dozens of states; it was the costliest storm on record in the United States, causing over $81 billion in damage. Approximately 75,000 persons were killed by the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, mostly in Pakistan, with 3 million left homeless. The 2010 earthquake that decimated Haiti left 230,000 dead, 300,000 injured, 1 million homeless, and almost 300,000 homes and businesses destroyed. Monsoon rains left almost one-fifth of Pakistan under water in 2010, affecting 20 million persons left homeless and destroying infrastructure and businesses. As the trends of population growth, urbanization, and global climate change converge, the scale and impact of disasters will only continue to grow.

Disasters of this scale require a corresponding massive relief effort to save lives and help disaster victims recover. For agencies responsible for helping disaster victims survive and recover, some of the biggest challenges involve those of effective coordination and management of the multitude of requests for assistance and information. Lifesaving decisions need to be made quickly: where to dispatch search and rescue teams, where to set up shelters, how to effectively distribute aid, how to manage donations, how to trace missing persons, and how to assure security of persons and property in the areas affected by the disaster. The best decisions are the most informed ones. Without access to information needed to make good decisions, relief may not get to those who need it most, aid dollars may be wasted, and lives may be lost.

Ten days after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, those coordinating the relief effort for the US Government did not know the location of all of the operating hospitals and medical facilities in Haiti, what services they offered, their status, and how many beds were available. This information was needed so relief workers would know where they could send the injured or ill, and for those hospitals already overflowing with patients, where they could transfer non-critical patients so they could continue to receive needed medical care. It is hard to imagine how this is possible. The Sahana Software Foundation stepped in to meet this need and through hard work and research by volunteers, we were able to provide through our public portal the first comprehensive data set of all functioning hospitals in Haiti, including their coordinates such that they could be located on a map, within 24 hours, and provided multiple data feeds so everyone could use this information within their own systems. This information was used by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), responsible for coordinating the international health response to the Haiti earthquake, the medical planners for US Southern Command, and dozens of other relief organizations.

The Sahana Software Solution

The experience of the 2010 Haiti earthquake illustrates the mission of the Sahana Software Foundation: to help alleviate human suffering by giving emergency managers, disaster response professionals, and communities access to the information that they need to better prepare for, and respond to, disasters through the development and promotion of free and open source software and open standards. In the aftermath of a massive natural disaster, some degree of chaos is inevitable, but this where Sahana's disaster management systems can play a critical role. It can provide a scalable systematic approach by managing large amounts of information, being able to efficiently distribute that information and make it accessible to those who need it on demand, providing a means to automatically collate, aggregate, and calculate based on all available data, and provide reports that are updated live and in real-time.

Sahana is one of several HFOSS projects that are now revolutionizing information management for international disaster response operations. Among others, this landscape includes the following projects and organizations, many of which provide visualization and maps from static sources of disaster information:

Compared to other projects, Sahana software is unique in two ways. First, Sahana software is the only system designed to provide management tools that allow responding agencies to work with the large amounts of data available to them; it allows them to assign individuals to tasks and facilitates management of people, places, and things that are important in disaster relief. Second, it provides a powerful platform for interoperability such that other tools and users can use Sahana software to share information, for example by pulling data from Ushahidi, OpenStreetMap, Google Person Finder, and other sources, aggregate it in one place, and redistribute it via open data standards such as EDXL, KML, or RSS. This allows Sahana to bridge information gaps across the diverse organizations and individuals responding to an emergency, each seeking to manage maximize the impact of their efforts.

Sahana software ensures responders and recipients have current relevant information to respond effectively. Sahana users can:

  • register individuals or families at a shelter, and link requests for aid (e.g., food, water, and blankets) or services (e.g., medical assistance, counseling, and family reunification) at individual or location levels

  • manage inventories and update the status and capacity of operating hospitals and medical facilities. Missing persons registries can be referenced against those registered at shelters.

  • pull requests for assistance and information from crowdsourcing solutions such as Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS, and Twitter. Requests can be managed by assigning tickets to each one, which are used to track responsibility, validity, priority, and status.

By facilitating sharing of relevant information across the diverse set of individuals and organizations that need to communicate with each other, Sahana software fundamentally transforms the chaos of information from a hindrance to an asset, enabling greater self-sufficiency during responses on behalf of communities.

The Sahana Software Foundation

The Sahana Software Foundation is the first and most mature HFOSS project and inspired the movement itself. Sahana was originally developed by members of the Sri Lankan IT community who wanted to find a way to apply their talents towards helping their country recover in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

Since 2004, Sahana has grown into a global free and open source software project supported by hundreds of volunteer contributors from dozens of countries and it has supported national and local authorities and relief agencies in their response to numerous large-scale, sudden-onset disasters. The effectiveness of Sahana software is demonstrated by a track record of successful deployments:

  1. In the 2004 Asian Tsunami, the Sri Lanka Center for National Operations used Sahana to identify the location of all relief camps and the demographic breakdown of over 26,000 victims (by age, gender, and illnesses) to help them target relief.

  2. Since 2007, the City of New York's Office of Emergency Management has used Sahana for managing its all-hazards sheltering plan, which involves over 500 shelters capable of housing over 800,000 persons and staffed by over 60,000 city agency employees and volunteers.

  3. After the Chendu-Sitzuan Earthquake of 2008 in China, Sahana was used by the Chendu police to track over 40,000 families. Following the earthquake, 42 separated family members were reunited using Sahana.

  4. After the Haiti earthquake of 2010, Sahana was used as a registry of nearly 700 organizations involved in the response. The software tracked almost 10,000 requests for assistance and information collected by Project 4636 provided the most accurate and complete registry of the 162 operating hospitals and medical facilities, along with bed availability and status, and aggregated 41 data layers from various sources onto one situation map. More than 230 registered users entered data into the system, which was accessed by over 8,600 visitors. The site was used daily by dozens of responding agencies in the first month of the disaster response.

  5. The US National Library of Medicine has developed a set of medical-related tools with Sahana as part of the Bethesda Hospitals Emergency Preparedness Partnership.

  6. Internationally, Sahana has been adopted by national and local governments, including Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Peru, Taiwan, and China.

The Sahana Software Foundation is recognized as a leader in humanitarian free and open source disaster information management software. It was established in 2009 as a non-profit organization to serve the needs and requirements of a diverse group of customers: government at the national, provincial or state, and local levels, United Nations (UN) agencies, international and local charitable organizations (non-governmental organizations), communities and disaster victims, and technology companies and software developers.

When considering the future of HFOSS and the Sahana Software Foundation's objectives, we recognize the following trends:

  1. The world's urban population will increase to 6.4 billion by 2050, when 70% of the world's population of 9.2 billion will live in urban areas, according to the UN.

  2. Urban infrastructure spending is expected to approach $350 trillion over the next 30 years, excluding water and sanitation, based on calculations by Booz & Company.

  3. Spending on disasters will triple to $185 billion per year by 2100, according to estimates in a UN and World Bank report.

Together, these trends represent an incredible opportunity. The Sahana Software Foundation seeks to leverage its humanitarian free and open source software, its own resources and expertise in disaster management, and an active community of volunteers, to significantly enhance the world's ability to mitigate and respond to disasters that threaten increasingly large numbers of vulnerable persons concentrated in densely populated urban environments. But we can not do this alone.

The Path Ahead: A Cooperative Business Model

While Sahana is primarily a global, volunteer-driven, open source project, it also has deep roots in the open source business community and has always been supported by that industry. Google and IBM, along with Accenture, have made investments and contributions to Sahana's development. Also, Virtusa provided testing help for the Haiti earthquake and Pakistan flood responses and provided a significant contribution at the start of the project in Sri Lanka. Further, Sahana has spurred the formation of two commercial companies that were started by experienced Sahana developers to provide Sahana-based services: Respere and AidIQ. Sahana has also been a part of several commercial service offerings and successful bid responses.

Although the software will always remain free, part of creating a sustainable HFOSS project includes the successful and viable commercialization of a product with a service industry surrounding it. However, despite the success and recognition that the Sahana Software Foundation has already received, there has admittedly not been enough user adoption to generate enough demand for widespread industry growth; it is simply not being deployed fast enough. One of the factors holding Sahana back is the lack of a qualified service sector to support it. The Sahana Software Foundation hope to grow the service industry that can provide technical support, while providing:

  • core codebase maintenance and support functions

  • professional user documentation and training

  • help in guiding the roadmap for new features based on stakeholder and user input

  • promotional assistance to encourage the adoption of Sahana and the principles of collaborative open source approaches to disaster information management

Despite these challenges, there are many indications that Sahana is on the cusp of widespread global adoption. Sahana has been acknowledged by important stakeholders in emergency and disaster management, a message that will reach those who have the financial resources to invest in disaster risk reduction initiatives. An article in the Bulletin of the International Association of Emergency Managers recently noted the uniqueness of Sahana's capabilities that include many useful features that are not included in commercial Critical Incident Management Systems (CIMS) that emergency management agencies typically use (IAEM Bulletin, Vol 27, No. 5, May 2010). Also, a US State Department White Paper on the Haiti Earthquake response noted, partly in reference to Sahana:

Within hours after the report of the Haiti earthquake, a new community of virtually connected volunteers affiliated with ICT consulting companies, private corporations, open source software proponents, academic/research institutions, NGOs, and even the Haitian diaspora community began applying new ICT applications to the earthquake response… This new community needs to be recognized as a new player in the humanitarian information environment...”

The business and open source sector has similarly acknowledged the maturity of Sahana through the following awards:

Having reached this level of recognition, the challenge is to deliver the support that is now expected. Capacity is needed to respond to new requests to have Sahana adopted at national and local levels as part of disaster risk reduction programs. Some of this demand will be fulfilled by the Sahana Software Foundation, but further capacity is needed. We hope that a robust service sector develops to support the efficient and cost-effective deployment of Sahana globally with customers who need it most. These customers are primarily in the public sector, but international organizations also have substantial needs for support services. Industry can provide critical personnel resources to market, deploy, and support HFOSS projects like Sahana. Through marketing, the private sector can help convince organizations of the value of this solution. Through the deployment of Sahana, private companies can enter commercial contracts to provide hosting, along with customization and enhancements on request. Finally, through their support of Sahana, private companies can enter maintenance contracts with a service level agreement that guarantees a professional level of technical and customer support in exchange for a fee. In these ways, industry can help create enough demand to make Sahana sustainable and commercially viable.

One of the means by which an industry around Sahana can grow cooperatively is through a certification and sponsorship program designed to professionalize the industry. This would provide a means for supporting a strong Sahana Software Foundation as a means to ensure the development of best practices around Sahana deployments, ensure that the codebase is well maintained, and provide a guarantee to Sahana's customers that support is being provided with quality control and competence in the provision of emergency and disaster management services.

The needs of disaster victims are urgent and widespread and organizations providing disaster relief have a corresponding need for Sahana's information-management tools. We hope to inspire the open source business community to join with the Sahana Software Foundation in a cooperative model to grow the capacity to address these widespread and growing needs so that there is an industry-level capability to do good. Doing good by helping people is fundamentally what HFOSS is about and this also fits in with corporate social responsibility programs.

In step with Sahana's own social responsibilities, any engagement with the foundation must be done with the highest of ethical standards. The Sahana Software Foundation's Chief Technical Officer, Chamindra de Silva, has been leading an effort to develop an HFOSS code of conduct designed to address issues of competitiveness and collaboration in the name of humanitarianism. Many other HFOSS projects have already agreed in principle to sign on to such a statement and we would expect the same of any company who seeks a partnership with the Sahana Software Foundation or seeks to use Sahana.


The open source industry has an interest in supporting a strong Sahana Software Foundation, whose experience, mission, and non-profit status allows it to serve as a trusted agent between a service industry and its customers. The number and impact of disasters is growing and will continue to grow, along with tremendous spending growth on disaster response and mitigation. Because of HFOSS projects like Sahana, there is an opportunity for open source businesses to contribute and to benefit from increased spending on initiatives that mitigate and reduce the risk of disaster. The challenge will be to develop a cooperative and collaborative industry that meets the needs of its growing customer base, while retaining a commitment to the principles around which HFOSS projects are organized. Most importantly, the solution should be born of a desire to help alleviate human suffering.

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