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The Mobilization of Relief Efforts

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On the morning of December 26, 2004, the largest-magnitude earthquake since 1964 rumbled under the Indian Ocean. A few hours later, waves as high as 30 meters surged over coastlines in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Indonesia and surrounding countries, washing away buildings, cars and people as far as 2000 meters inland. In what would become one of the worst natural disasters in history, an estimated 230,000 people would lose their lives, and more than 1.5 million others would be displaced from their homes.

IBMers mobilized to help from the first news reports, which came on a Sunday at the start of a customary weeklong holiday for many employees. In India, IBM employees collected more than eight tons of food, clothes, blankets and medicines for the Red Cross. Software applications were developed to help track and create ID cards for victims and monitor the distribution of relief materials. In Thailand, IBMers built a website to provide information and updates for the public from the government response agencies. In Indonesia, IBM developed the Aceh Disaster Management System, established a wireless network in this remote area, and donated four servers, 275 ThinkPad notebook computers and other hardware to run the application. IBM trained government and United Nations volunteers to use the system, and in just over two months, they had collected International Displaced Person registrations for more than 150,000 people.

In Sri Lanka, IBM collaborated with volunteers from the open-source IT community and the government—led by a senior IBM researcher recently returned to the country—to develop a free, open-source disaster management system called Sahana. The software was used to track dead and missing persons, and displaced persons in refugee camps. It also helped improve logistics efforts and was used to develop rebuilding plans.

IBM’s efforts helped locate more than 40,000 missing children during the first week after the tsunami. More than 700 employees were involved for stretches of up to three and four months, and IBM’s overall contribution totaled more than US$3.2 million.

This kind of response is not unusual at IBM, where humanitarian ethics are part of the corporate culture.

“IBM has a tradition of responding whenever there’s a disaster, whenever there’s a significant occurrence in one of the communities where we live and work,” says Robin Willner, IBM’s vice president of Global Community Initiatives. “That’s part of being a good corporate citizen.”

In 1914, the first year Thomas J. Watson Sr. joined the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Corporation, the company donated funds to more than 20 charities. One of the company’s first grants was to the Red Cross to help relocate refugees in Europe from the First World War. Throughout the years, IBMers have always been encouraged to make donations to those in need—in 2008, IBM employees and retirees donated more than US$36 million to charitable causes.

Starting in the 1990s, IBM has made a strategic effort to respond to the world’s disasters, with not just financial donations, but by lending its talent, expertise and compassion to help victims recover their lives after suffering the effects of earthquakes, floods and tsunamis. The IBM ® On Demand Community, a global volunteer and service network launched in 1993, enables IBMers to find volunteer opportunities, training and resources related to disaster preparedness and response. As a global company with more than 400,000 employees in 170 countries, IBM has hearts and hands available worldwide when the unthinkable happens.

Within 24 hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York on September 11, 2001, IBM chairman and CEO Lou Gerstner and IBM president and COO Sam Palmisano pledged US$5 million in technology, services and cash in support of relief and recovery efforts, and mobilized IBM to help. IBM helped establish the September 11 th Fund within the first 36 hours after the attack, and then provided call center support and highly secure online capacity for contributions during the historic all-stations telethon, which raised US$120 million in its first 20 hours and eventually would raise more than US$500 million overall for victims, families and communities affected by the attacks. Hundreds of IBM laptops and other computers were donated to the New York City mayor’s office, the National Guard, the Red Cross and Disaster Services Assistance Center. IBM established a wireless network at Ground Zero after all cell phone access had been destroyed and created a database for the major aid organizations to help avoid duplication of efforts or fraud, and to help get all available and appropriate aid to the families.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and would become the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. To help rebuild, IBM developed the Jobs4Recovery website, joining with the US Chamber of Commerce to help connect post-Katrina jobseekers with employment opportunities. More than 400 IBMers volunteered for clean-up and housing rehab in the city of New Orleans.

Following the May 2008 earthquake that hit China’s Sichuan Province, IBMers around the world made more than US$800,000 in donations to Red Cross organizations. IBM donated six high-end enterprise servers to relief efforts, and more than 50 IBM development laboratory and technical support experts worked around the clock to customize and translate Sahana software for deployment.

The earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 would displace more than one million people. The IBM community responded with US$2 million in donations to Haiti earthquake relief, beginning 48 hours after the first quake. IBM worked with humanitarian aid organizations to design tracking systems for vehicles and supplies, and consulted on creating a mobile datacenter.

In February 2010, a massive earthquake devastated much of Chile. IBM built a “Smarter Command Center” for the Chilean Red Cross using the Sahana platform (already translated into Spanish after an earlier earthquake in Peru), including donated servers, notebook computers and software, and renovated the basement of the Red Cross building to turn it into a command center.

Through its responses to natural disasters, IBM continues to innovate and create new solutions. Sahana, the open-source software created in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and now governed by the Sahana Software Foundation, continues to evolve and is often referred to as “disaster relief in a box” for its ease of deployment. IBM continues to support its use for disaster relief and has deployed it in more than a dozen instances since its creation, including the 2008 Chengdu-Sichuan Province earthquake in China and the 2010 Chile earthquake.

Work following the tsunami also led to publication of two Global Caregivers’ Guides For Helping Survivors Of Disaster—one specifically for children and another for adults—designed for use by professionals and volunteers providing support to children following a disaster and produced by IBM. The guides have been produced in English, Spanish, French, Haitian Creole, Chinese and Japanese.