KSG Prof Starts Earthquake Relief Web Site

October 27, 2005
Alvin Powell

As an urgent call goes out for relief supplies to aid those homeless and hungry from Pakistan's Oct. 8 earthquake, a Kennedy School professor is using cyberspace to get relief supplies where they're most needed.

Assistant Professor of Public Policy Asim Khwaja, with collaborators Jishnu Das and Tara Vishwanath from the World Bank and Tahir Andrabi from Pomona College, has rushed to create a Web site that can help coordinate relief efforts. The site, complete with a list of affected villages and satellite maps, aims to ensure that places off of main roads and in other less accessible locations aren't forgotten.

The site, http://www.risepak.com, gathers information from census data, maps, satellite photographs, and other sources together with real-time postings from relief workers, government agencies, and individuals visiting the affected areas. It was created with the help of the World Bank, WOL (Pakistan's largest Internet service provider), and dozens of volunteers in Pakistan.

The site aims to provide information on the level of destruction at a particular location, the condition of surrounding roads, and the amount of aid provided so far so that efforts can be focused on areas that have not received relief.

"People [relief workers] go to the most accessible areas. They may not realize that right behind the mountaintop there's another 60 homes," Khwaja said. "Our motto is 'no village left behind.'"

The effort comes as winter approaches the earthquake-stricken Himalayan mountains. The change of seasons is adding freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall to challenges faced by the estimated 3 million homeless from the disaster.

United Nations officials last week called the relief effort among the most difficult they've ever encountered and are warning that up to 10,000 children could be dead within weeks of exposure, starvation, and disease unless relief efforts are stepped up.

The quake's death toll reached 49,739 on Thursday (Oct. 20), with 74,000 wounded, according to Pakistan's National Relief Commissioner Maj. Gen. Farooq Ahmed Khan. United Nations Undersecretary Gen. Jan Egeland said Thursday that the death toll may eventually reach twice that figure and that relief officials are seeing rapidly increasing rates of infections, gangrene, and diseases.

Logistics are proving especially difficult in the mountainous region, with landslides obliterating roads and helicopters scarce to airlift supplies.

Khwaja, who has conducted extensive research using Pakistani census data, said the initial idea was to make existing information available to rescuers and relief agencies so they know where villages are and how many people normally live there. As they worked on the site, however, they developed more ideas and became aware of more available information, such as satellite maps.

By gathering freely available information in one place, Khwaja said, sites such as RISEPAK, which stands for Relief Information System for Earthquake - Pakistan, could be created for other nations and stand ready for use after disaster strikes. By examining old satellite images on the site and comparing them with images taken after a disaster, relief agencies and government officials can quickly assess the amount of damage and mobilize resources.

"In those images, you can see individual houses. You can make out whether the road is even there anymore," Khwaja said. "Anytime a disaster hits anywhere, within six hours, you'll have a sense of the magnitude and spread of the disaster. In situations like these, even a couple of days' improvement in response time can help save hundreds."

One positive in such a calamity is the selfless response of individuals. Khwaja, who grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, said he knows many friends and acquaintances who have filled up their cars with food and headed into the mountains to help however they can. While those efforts are admirable, he said, they are not necessarily aimed at areas of greatest need.

"The individual response has been incredible. The concern is it appears to be unorganized and this may reduce its effectiveness," Khwaja said.

The Web site has a searchable list of all the affected villages and will keep updating a "top 100 villages" list for those likely to have suffered the highest damage that have not been visited by any relief agency.

Within 24 hours of going live last week, the site already had 30 messages posted, such as one posted on Oct. 19 from an organization that found a source of 1,600 badly needed winterized tents in Peshawar but only had funds to purchase 600, and that from the Gujar Youth Organization on Oct. 18 reporting on five communities in the affected area:

"The settlements Badala, Pekho Nakar, Ali Abad, Nakar Khun Kalan, and Nakar Khun Khurd in Tehsil Abbottabad all have more than a hundred houses destroyed, no usable school, and no health facility. Roads to these settlements are closed and more than a hundred people need medical assistance. We have taken one ton of food to each of these settlements."

Khwaja said they have volunteers actively seeking out responding agencies in order to post their activities on the site. Since some of the affected communities have cell phone coverage, they're also asking individuals with cell phones in those areas to report conditions.

Khwaja said the site will continue to change, partly to meet changing conditions, but partly because it was put up before it was completely finished because the need is so great.

"If you have the data, you can see entire areas in northern Pakistan have literally been flattened," Khwaja said. "As winter approaches, the concern is that we're going to see very high mortality rates if we don't get [people] shelter and relief in time."

alvin_powell@harvard.edu

Staff photo T.J. Kirkpatrick/Harvard News Office

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Asim Khwaja image

Assistant Professor of Public Policy Asim Khwaja (above), with collaborators Jishnu Das and Tara Vishwanath from the World Bank and Tahir Andrabi from Pomona College, has rushed to create a Web site that can help coordinate Pakistan relief efforts.