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Open Innovation to the Rescue
On 3 May 2008, a cyclone struck Myanmar. Ten days later, state television reported more than 34,000 dead. The United Nations (UN) estimates suggested the death toll may exceed 60,000. Relief agencies rushed to help, but the government in Myanmar seemed reluctant to accept assistance, even denying visas to some of the aid workers. The “unacceptably slow response” moved the secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, to call a press conference. “I want to register my deep concern,” he said, “and immense frustration.” The UN emergency relief coordinator, John Holmes, reported separately that international relief workers were being turned back at roadblocks. Without their expertise, essentials like rice, beans and water-purification tablets would not reach the thousands who needed them.
As it happened, the day secretary-general Ban Ki-moon addressed the press, an earthquake struck Sichuan, a mountainous province in China. Within days, the death toll had reached nearly 20,000. China, which seldom accepts official relief missions from foreign countries, asked Japan for 60 earthquake-rescue experts. Even more remarkably, it accepted help from three Taiwanese private relief teams and, later, from Russia, South Korea and Singapore. As Andrew Jacobs, writing earlier in The New York Times observed: “The official response … stands in stark contrast not only to neighboring Myanmar’s, but also to China’s abysmal performance during a major quake in 1976, when at least 240,000 people died in the eastern city of Tangshan.” Shi Anbin, a professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, concurred, seeing in the government’s response “a trend of Chinese openness and reform.” Relief agencies and their staff are experts in managing fragile supply chains, unparalleled in their ability to weld disparate groups into an effective team. When the fate of thousands hangs in the balance, it can be heart-rending for such experts to countenance institutional ineptitude. For them (and, indeed, for all who wish to ensure that help reaches the needy), solace may be found in the open-source software movement. More generally known as open innovation, this collaborative approach to product development is often associated with products like Linux, a computer operating system so successful that it has prompted many investors to re-examine their expectations of the conventional software industry. Evidence that open innovation is gaining wider popularity comes from companies like Procter & Gamble. In the 1990s, only 20% of ideas for its new products came from outside P&G; within 10 years, that number had risen to about 50%.
To see how open innovation can help victims of natural disasters, look at Sahana, a free, open source disaster management system that helps coordinate relief efforts (www.sahana.lk). The program makes it easier for aid organisations to coordinate resources and juggle requests for support. It helps friends and relatives find loved ones, while enabling the authorities to look after refugees, right down to tracking the location, quantity and expiry dates of supplies. It can even build a geographical information system to help decision-makers act in a chaotic, fast-changing situation.
Sahana was initiated in Sri Lanka, after the tsunami of 2004, but the community of contributing programmers circles the globe. After the cyclone hit Myanmar, one partner, InSTEDD (International Networked System for Total Early Disease Detection), received a request: could it help translate Sahana into Burmese? In response, InSTEDD, which is based in Palo Alto, California, coordinated its own worldwide effort. Within days, 30 volunteers across four continents were hard at work, translating key features of Sahana into Burmese. The success of the InSTEDD-Sahana team will depend, undoubtedly, on the actions of the government in Myanmar. But regardless of what that government does, the open-source programmers’ efforts will strengthen a package that has already made a difference during disasters in The Philippines, Pakistan and Peru, improving with each iteration. We may be unable to stop a storm in its tracks, but if Sahana’s success is anything to go by, there’s much we can do to temper its fury – and we’re getting stronger all the time.
Shreedhar Kanetkar welcomes your comments. Write to [email protected]

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At its three plants at Durgapur, Bengaluru and Nashik, Graphite India (GIL) makes products...

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