Techies pitch in on tsunami help

A group of computer enthusiasts in Indonesia has created a wireless network to coordinate relief efforts.

From atop a slender, 130-foot radio tower, Aries Bangun, a recent graduate in electrical engineering, hung on nervously as he fiddled to connect a cable to a satellite dish earlier this month.

"I could see the devastation, the ruins, the beach line," he says, referring to the effects of the Dec. 26 tsunami.

Soon the dish was broadcasting a stream of data containing e-mails, text, and images up to a satellite and back down to Earth. Banda Aceh, capital of the province worst hit by the tsunami and earthquake, had just gone wireless. "I was a little afraid of aftershocks," says Mr. Aries with a chuckle.

Aries and 23 colleagues in Air Putih, an online chat group, are on a mission. Along with an alliance of computer enthusiasts, they are fighting to apply the powers of the Internet to help coordinate the world's largest humanitarian operation since World War II. Coordinated and supported by the Indonesian Information Technology Federation, an association which includes nine industry groups, they have formed the Aceh Media Center, an organization devoted to applying information technology to solving the humanitarian disaster of the province.

They've set up wireless Internet kiosks across the city for aid groups and journalists. Their website (acehmedia more than 100,000 hits in less than a month of operations. The site includes frequent news updates and has a database of missing persons. Relief groups say that the service has been invaluable in helping them do their work as Banda Aceh slowly rebounds.

Now they want to expand their work. "We want to take wireless across Aceh," says Idris Suleiman, the Jakarta-based international coordinator, referring to Internet connections without cables. "It can be done."

The idea takes root

The tsunami left more than 150,000 dead in Aceh and destroyed much of the province's essential infrastructure such as roads, power plants, and telephone lines. As aid organizations around the world made plans to gather food, tents, and medical supplies, members of the Aceh Media Center sent out pleas via e-mail for the tools that would help them to set up emergency Internet facilities. On Dec. 27, a day after the disaster, donated equipment began to pile up, including computers, wireless devices, cables, and very important, the VSAT - a portable satellite dish.

A two-man "advance team" then flew to Banda Aceh carrying 13 boxes of wireless equipment, cables, antennas, the VSAT, and a collapsible tower. "Our first objective was to assist the flow of data," says Anjar Ari Nugroho, an Air Putih member whose day job is an Internet service provider.

Drawing on previous experience in earthquakes, Mr. Anjar realized that distribution and coordination were the biggest hurdles in the beginning. "Some people get rice and need water; some people get water and need rice," he says.

By New Year's Day, the Aceh Media Center had reestablished Internet connectivity in Banda Aceh - even before the state telecom company PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia lumbered into action.

More Air Putih members joined the advance team in the next few days. Two members scouted the city, still scattered with corpses, for sites to set up a wireless broadcasting device. They spotted a tower atop an Internet cafe and persuaded the distraught owner to let them use his equipment. Not long after, on Jan 5, Aries began climbing.

"I just want to contribute my skills," says the sprightly Aries before climbing out a window to connect another wireless device on the roof of a Toyota showroom that has become a makeshift headquarters for the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

The Aceh Media Center has set up free Internet sites at Banda Aceh's main post office and the governor's residence, which serves as the headquarters for government operations. The team has also set up an outdoor Internet tent where journalists can log on for free.

Air Putih members say they've had to improvise with local materials, grabbing nearby pipes and using long wooden poles to hook up radio towers. They battle regular blackouts and, above all, say they need more bandwidth, which would allow them to transmit more data.

International organizations say the work of Air Putih has been invaluable. "They were an enormous help in the first days," says Ian Woolverton, a spokesman for the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

"It's desperately needed," said Alvis, an Indonesian coordinator with the same group. "For movement, reporting of the names of the dead, the numbers of the dead, the number of camps, and for open communication."

The group says it is taking its "wireless freedom" concept to the shattered city of Meulaboh, which was in the direct path of the tsunami. They also want to jump to such isolated areas as the island of Simeuleu.

And they have help. Three IT veterans landed in Banda Aceh to help Air Putih achieve its vision. The silver-bearded Earl Campbell of New Mexico is a specialist in ham radio. Peggy Townsend, an Internet specialist from Michigan, and Jeremy Parr of the Bahamas are providing backup. The three answered a plea for help from Mr. Idris sent out to Internet service providers in the US.

Still recruiting

The Aceh Media Center is still recruiting help to drive its expansion across the province, asking donors for 40 to 80 laptops, five global-positioning systems, five satellite phones, six pairs of wireless communications, and 20 walkie-talkies, among other things. They also want a solar panel and electrical generators to power the venture.

To avoid tsunami tragedies in the future, they are currently negotiating with the government's meteorology and geophysics department for wireless assistance to the early-warning system.

Anjar, sitting crosslegged amid a circle of five laptops at the Toyota dealership, says they plan to connect as many wireless "hot spots" as possible. "Until all our equipment is gone," he says.

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