A view from Microsoft's disaster central

From a standard conference room at Microsoft's headquarters, the software maker coordinates its emergency response, such as the effort under way in Haiti.

REDMOND, Wash.--The ground-level conference room in Building 25 doesn't look much different than many others in buildings across Microsoft's sprawling campus.

It has a window, though most of the view is obscured by a large bush. It has the usual array of outlets and Ethernet jacks, screens, and projectors. During earthquakes and floods, hurricanes and tsunamis, though, this room is ground zero for Microsoft's emergency response effort.

Even then though, it can be hard to tell that somewhere halfway around the world, disaster has struck. That's because Microsoft's disaster team is a virtual one, with much of the action taking place online. Even those working together in Redmond are often glued to their laptops, rather than communicating with nearby colleagues.

"It will look like a bunch of people just sending e-mail," said Claire Bonilla, the senior director of disaster response for Microsoft.

There are about 65 lead members of Microsoft's emergency response effort--and perhaps 160 dedicated people overall--but even at its busiest there might only be fewer than two dozen people in the main disaster response room.

When disaster hits, Bonilla and team activate, reaching out to the nearest Microsoft subsidiary. The company tries to simultaneously make sure its own workers are accounted for, check in with partners and customers, and offer immediate assistance to international aid workers.

The company works with those aid groups to quickly establish a portal called OneResponse, which relief workers can use to coordinate their efforts. That, too is understated, looking like a Web site from a decade ago with little more than a bunch of text links on the main page.

Although it is built on modern SharePoint technology, the design of OneResponse is deliberately spartan, aiming to work on even the poorest of Internet connections--the only kind often available in the wake of natural disaster.

In the case of Haiti, Microsoft's disaster effort was up and running by 6 p.m. on the day of the quake. In addition to conference calls with aid groups, Microsoft had the added insight of Gisli Olafsson , who works in Microsoft's disaster efforts but was quickly on the ground in Haiti as part of his volunteer gig as a member of Iceland's search and rescue team. Olafsson's firsthand knowledge helped give Microsoft an early sense of what the situation was like on the ground.

Microsoft, of course, is far from alone in pitching in during times of disaster. Many companies have offered their cash, services, products, and know-how in the wake of the Haiti quake.

A number of tech companies, including Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, and Google are supporters of NetHope, an organization that helps establish emergency, temporary, and permanent communications following a disaster. That has been an especially acute need in Haiti, said NetHope CEO Bill Brindley.

"The communications infrastructure in Haiti has been virtually demolished," said Brindley, whose group has worked to bring in portable satellite units that aid groups can use to provide voice communication and Internet access.

Among those pitching in is San Francisco-based Inveneo, which has specialized in setting up off-the-grid networks in rural Africa . That know-how has come in handy in setting up Wi-Fi in Haiti, which is still without widespread power.

Inveneo CIO Mark Summer, who has been helping set-up portable Wi-Fi units for NetHope, said that the devastation is intense.

"In the hills the damage is significantly less then down in the center of Port-Au-Prince where in it seems that in many areas more then 50 percent of the buildings are gone or beyond repair," he said in an e-mail statement. "We've seen buildings that have had two or three stories and now no higher then 5 feet of the ground--it seems as if walls just turned into sand..."

Each disaster brings its own set of needs and challenges. The fact Haiti was so impoverished even before the quake, plus the fact it struck the capital, has posed a big challenge for aid groups. In the early days, it was a challenge getting supplies into the country, Bonilla said.

"Planes circled for three hours and sometimes had to go back to the Dominican Republic because they couldn't land," Bonilla said.

Keeping aid workers safe is also an issue.

"People are desperate for anything they can do to provide food and water to their families and that can breed security issues," Bonilla said.

By last Thursday afternoon, only Bonilla and one colleague were in the disaster room. One person did wander into the room, though he was looking for one of the many Microsoft partners that occupy the bulk of Building 25's ground floor.

MSNBC streamed in the background, though coverage had switched from Haiti to live footage of a car chase here in the U.S.

"I don't think that classifies as even a minor disaster," Bonilla jokes, going back to her work. As with many responses, Bonilla has been working for 18 to 20 hours a day. Bonilla said her job makes her glad she works in the Seattle area, known for its good coffee. Even that, she said, only carries her so far. "After awhile, caffeine loses its impact," she said. "Then it's just adrenaline."

 

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