June 6, 2006

When disaster strikes, OSS-based service is there to help

Author: Tina Gasperson

Last year, survivors of the many hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast of the United States suffered from scarce resources and limited communication avenues. With families separated and desperate to find one another, ContactLovedOnes.org launched a free call-in service, based on open source software, that helped them to reconnect. Now, with hurricane season approaching once again, ContactLovedOnes.org is ready for the deluge.

Dan Schoeffler and Rabbi Yaakov Menken launched ContactLovedOnes.org on September 19, 2005, 20 days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall just east of New Orleans. The huge storm was accompanied by a surge that breached the levees surrounding the city, causing disastrous flooding that left thousands dead, missing, or homeless. Two weeks after the storm, large numbers of evacuees were still looking for their families and friends, Schoeffler says. He and Menken developed a phone-based system that allowed those affected by the storm to call in and establish a voice mailbox tied to their non-working phone number. Friends and family who knew the phone number could access the voice mailbox, leaving and retrieving messages for each other.

"We don't know the real numbers" of people who were helped by the system, Schoeffler says. "The recording and retrieval of messages is completely automated. Hundreds of people have expressed to us their gratitude for making the service available and giving them a means to contact their friends and family."

The VoIP system runs on Asterisk IP PBX and a MySQL database on top of Linux. "We were extremely happy with the results," Menken says. "Even at peak times, the servers had the necessary capacity, and we are optimistic that we'll be ready this year as well." Schoeffler and Menken are gearing up for the new season and hope to help even more people this year if that becomes necessary. "Our aim is the keep the service running in anticipation of any future need," Menken says. "It's one of those things where you hope for the best and prepare for the worst. In a world free of natural disasters it would never be called upon, but we haven't managed to reprogram the weather."

Menken says they are expecting more users this year because the service didn't launch last year until after Katrina. "Since we are now ready in advance, we may see much greater utilization of the service even though the number displaced [may be] much smaller. The Red Cross already knows to give out our number when people arrive at shelters."

"We do need to do some upgrading and expansion to add features and capacity," Schoeffler says. "We are looking for interested corporate sponsors to help with this."

Local providers in Texas and from as far away as New York donated the toll-free phone numbers for ContactLovedOnes.org. "We anticipate finding numbers in new locations when necessary," Menken says. "This is the sort of community endeavor in which many VoIP providers are proud to participate."

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