August 25, 2006

Linux kiosks come to the aid of natural disaster victims

Author: Tina Gasperson

When faced with the aftermath of a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina or the Boxing Day tsunami, you might assume that having Internet access would be the last thing on victims' or rescuers' minds. But Steve Hargadon of found out that his public Web kiosks were an answer to prayers for people affected by Katrina, Rita, and most recently, Cyclone Larry.

Hargadon specializes in Linux thin clients for small businesses and schools. He likes to transform aging Windows networks into high-speed, low-cost, virus-free workstations by using existing PCs, sans hard drives, that act as dumb terminals. Hargadon has discovered that that kind of technology translates easily into community outreach. He started thinking about that as he watched the world's response to the Asian tsunami in 2004. "I wondered, what are people doing on those response teams and in the emergency shelters, and wouldn't it be nice if they could get Internet? I started playing around with some ideas and looking at different live CD versions of kiosk software."

When Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, Hargadon decided to take his thin client knowledge and the live CD concept and do what he could. "I thought, let's see if we can make a difference." He went to the shelters and to local Red Cross agencies with his proposal: to provide the means for workers and victims to easily and securely access the 'Net. The agencies took him up on that offer.

Hargadon created the bootable CDs with Morphix Linux and a locked-down version of the Firefox browser. The system is configured to clear the cache when Firefox is closed or after five minutes of inactivity. Hargadon also creates custom portal sites for agencies that request the kiosk software.

One problem Hargadon encountered with the kiosks was that FEMA Web sites were not fully accessible with Firefox, so shelters had to have a Windows system available to access that agency's services online. Even so, he says, the kiosks were deployed "fairly widely" in hurricane-affected areas. This year, Hargadon created a custom CD for victims of Tropical Cyclone Larry, which hit Innisfail in Queensland, Australia..

With the public kiosks, not only are emergency staff able to find resources to help victims, but the victims themselves can maintain contact with the outside world. Bill Ford, the IT director for Vicksburg, Mississippi, used the kiosk software in the Joint Command Center set up at the Vicksburg Convention Center after Katrina. He had six PCs set up with Internet access for storm victims. "As I stopped by the computer area, I was struck and moved by what I was seeing," Ford wrote in a thank you letter to Hargadon. "This is a great example of 'saving the world' one person ... or one project, like yours, at a time."

Another volunteer in Dallas who helped set up more than 40 kiosks for those in shelters spoke of the relief that technology provided. "Quote of the day," he wrote in an email to Hargadon, "'Can we use these computers to find family?' Help yourself. 'Oh, thank you Jesus.'"

This year, Hargadon says he is "ready and interested" to continue his drive to help. He hopes that agencies now will be able to fully realize "the kind of ubiquitous Internet access" the live CDs can provide. "It's a phenomenal concept, and we hope that if there are opportunities for people to use it again, it will get used. The nice thing is that we have all the Web sites in place, and the emergency shelters are better prepared. They understand the value of having Internet access for the refugees and for their volunteers."


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