Ice storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis are just some of the forces of nature that can wreak havoc on the lives of untold thousands in a period of seconds, minutes, days, or months. As global temperatures rise and as a growing human population expands into more and more areas less and less suited for either habitation or rescue, the average person in the world (one of 6+ billion) faces an increasing likelyhood that he or she will face a real disaster that seriously disrupts possible response.
Consider the plight of Sri Lanka, which was devastated by a tsunami in 2004. According to a BBC eyewitness reporter:
There are no kind of emergency services here, there are no helicopters thumping through the sky to come to save people. It is a do-it-yourself rescue.
The final tally reported more than 40,000 dead and a staggering 2.5 million displaced. And from the report's summary: "Waves as high as six meters had crashed into coastal villages, sweeping away people, cars, and even a train with 1,700 passengers." Whatever infrastructure may have existed prior to the tsunami, it was completely overwhelmed by both the magnitude of human need and the destructive power of the disaster. Within hours, open-source software developers created the Sahana project, and within days, their home-grown solution was doing more to help the Sri Lankan people than first-world conventional software packages did in far less extreme circumstances. And now it is doing even more, with the One Laptop Per Child hardware platform.
The attacks of September 11, the Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, even the severe snowstorm that's affecting China this week all demonstrate that when a disaster disrupts critical infrastructure, all prior plans are moot. When first responders cannot respond, when so many people are missing that the missing cannot be counted, when relief efforts confront political or ideological boundaries, victims of disaster are truly on their own, and their rescue becomes a self-rescue effort. The Sahana project demonstrates that self-interest in self-preservation is a far stronger and more hopeful approach than waiting for help that may be delayed, detained, or simply in denial, as evidenced by the numerous awards and recognition it has already won. (For more on the Sahana project, read the whole Wikipedia article.)
When the One Laptop Per Child initiative was announced, the Sahana team recognized that the XO laptop was more than a child's toy. The low cost made it a practical computer terminal for a world whose median citizen lives on less than $2 per day. The weatherized and ruggedized case and keyboard are far superior to handling the elements than any laptop I've carried through the halls of corporate America. The XO's mesh network provides an autonomous/spontaneous way to stand up voice and data communications. The XO's embedded microphone and video camera enable voice and video conferencing, which can be critical to prioritizing and directing outside response. Its small form factor, light weight, and low operating power requirements (including feasible operation using human-generated power) make it deliverable, portable, and serviceable in the widest range of imaginable circumstances. And now, the Sahana platform has been ported to Sugar.
Many years ago I read a pair of sci-fi books, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card and and The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. Both tell of a world saved by children who mastered technology by learning it unconsciously. As I watch my own daughter using her laptop now more as a tool than a toy, I see her learning without knowing how much she is learning. I see the living inspiration behind the amazing characters of those stories. I sincerely hope that my daughter is never forced to use her XO laptop to survive or to help others survive, but I know that others who have lived through disasters of the past never want to be without contact or communication again, and never want to be dependent on centralized resources that are the first to go when disaster strikes. I think that the dual-use of the XO as both an educational and survival tool will be a powerful benefit to many children and many people living closer and closer to the edge of disaster.