Prof Uses Net To Aid Victims

Faced with confusion and inefficiencies in aid efforts after the earthquake that rocked South Asia, Kennedy School Assistant Professor Asim I. Khwaja decided to use the Internet to better organize relief.

Khwaja, with collaborators from the World Bank and Pomona College, has created a website that informs relief workers about reports of specific needs from volunteers and villagers in Pakistan.

The Relief Information System for Earthquakes-Pakistan (RISE-PAK) puts focus on individual villages that might otherwise be overlooked by relief efforts in the wake of the Oct. 8 earthquake, Khwaja said.

Kennedy School student Samia Amin, who helped Khwaja compile a list of charities for RISE-PAK, said that part of the challenge of disaster relief efforts is documenting where help is going.

RISE-PAK addresses that by aiming to keep track of where help has been sent and where it is still needed, Khwaja said.

Khwaja added that in the wake of a disaster, relief efforts tend to be somewhat disorganized.

“It is like a dartboard. If you blindly throw all the darts at once, you might miss something,” he said. “It doesn’t work.”

“You might get 10 to 20 percent of an area, but who is doing the rest?” he added.

RISE-PAK’s frequently-updated Top 100 Villages list provides information about the location of villages that need help and informs relief workers about exactly what is needed.

The website gleans information from a network of villagers, volunteers, and student call center workers in Pakistan.

This kind of technology would have been useful in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when ordinary people wanted to help but didn’t know where to go, Khwaja added.

“You and your friends get together and rent a van, decided to buy some tents and some food. This website can tell you where to go and what to take,” Khwaja said.

Although Khwaja said the effectiveness of the RISE-PAK initiative is still unclear, he thinks that the technology could be used in the event of future disasters.

He said that part of the reason relief efforts are often uncoordinated is because people are in shock.

“The nice thing about computers is that they don’t go into shock,” he said.