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Wireless to the RESCUE - Q&A with Ramesh Rao

Electrical and computer engineering professor Ramesh Rao

Electrical and computer engineering professor Ramesh Rao scrolls through hundreds of emails he received in the 48 hours after the Indian Ocean tsunami hit, killing more than 220,000 people. The disaster resonated with Rao for many reasons beyond the obvious. The UCSD division director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology leads multiple research projects to improve emergency communications before and after disasters, and he grew up in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, with its 500-mile Indian Ocean coastline.

Q. Where were you when you heard about the tsunami? A. I was home in San Diego, but I was in constant touch with many old friends from university who were holding a reunion that day in Chennai on the coast. My email in-box was filled with updates from friends there. What struck me most about the anecdotal reports—not just email, but also phone calls, text messages, and eyewitness accounts from bloggers that I was tracking on the Internet—was the apparent randomness with which the tsunami took its toll on the coast. Whole towns escaped loss of life, while a few miles away, some villages were wiped out. They didn't get the word in time.

Q. Could information technology have reduced the death toll? A. Fortunately, wireless technology and the Internet can improve early-warning systems and alert more people more quickly, and every minute counts. Even in parts of Indonesia closest to the epicenter, if residents were given as little as ten minutes' notice to evacuate, many would have had enough time to escape from the coast or reach higher ground. On the eastern coast of India , they could have had up to three hours' notice.

Q. What is being done by engineers to fix the problem? A. With $12.5 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, researchers from Calit2 at UCSD and UC Irvine have embarked on a project called RESCUE, which stands for Response to Crises and Unexpected Events. Using more robust information systems to create ‘situational awareness' for first responders and the general public, our goal is to radically transform the ability of responding organizations to gather, manage, use, and disseminate information within emergency-response networks.

Q. Why wireless? A. Imagine how different the response to the Indian Ocean tsunami would have been if every individual or family in a threatened area had a cell phone. Imagine also that every mobile phone operator was set up to sound the alarm to their subscribers instantaneously, via voice, alarm and/or text message. Going further, if every phone was equipped with a global positioning system, the operator could know their location and therefore push special announcements to subscribers in the most threatened regions. The automated service could even alert individuals to their best route out of a danger zone.

Q. What role does the Internet play in improved disaster response? A. Camera phones and other data-enabled devices will transform how we respond to crises because all those emails, images, blogs, even video are instantly uploaded to the Web. One early arrival at a disaster scene may only upload three photos from their phone, but if you have a thousand people doing the same, all of a sudden you have a detailed visual record of the disaster scene.

Q. So how do you pull all that impromptu and disparate data together? A. For want of a better analogy, I think we need a type of Google that would gather disaster-related information from all official and unofficial sources. The first obligation in a crisis is to ‘do no wrong.' Before propagating an alert, you want to have reliable information. In RESCUE, we are looking at ways to validate information without relying on any single source. Out of a large amount of seemingly reliable information, you should be able to pick up that something is definitely happening.